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Three Cognitive Biases That Cost You Money, Stress, and Happiness

Three Cognitive Biases That Cost You Money, Stress, and Happiness

Lets start with a simple question: how many of each animal did Moses take into the ark? If you pounced with the answer “2,” you have fallen into the same trap as most people. (The answer is zero—figure the rest out yourself.) Cognitive biases tell us we know when we don’t, create absurdly optimistic estimates of what we can achieve, and keep us stuck in bad relationships and bad jobs.

Here are three biases and some strategies for getting out of the trap they set.

1. The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Imagine you have a ticket to the movies for which you forked out 10 bucks, but you are attending with a friend who got hers for free.  The weather turns sour and they are re-running Dukes of Hazard.  Which one of you is more likely to cancel?  If you say “my friend, duh,” you are trapped by the sunk cost fallacy.

Your ten bucks is gone (assuming you can’t plead a refund).  Since you are out ten bucks whether you go or not, it should not affect your choice.  What matters is the cost-benefit of braving the weather, and whether your movie features more interesting characters than Boss Hogg. (Unlikely. Still.)

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The sunk cost fallacy traps people in bad relationships, bad investments, and traps countries in destructive, no-win wars.  (“We can’t withdraw because we have spent billions and people have given their lives.”)  What matters is the future—whether you can turn the relationship around, or whether the next billion dollars and young lives will be squandered in vain.

The sunk-cost fallacy is an example of a cognitive bias—a habitual, predictable, way of thinking that leads to error.  Wiki lists over 100; it seems the amazing human brain has many hard-wired flaws.

Some of these flaws may have conferred an evolutionary advantage.  Who knows what the exact conditions were five thousand years ago, but the hard-wiring of our brains may not have changed quickly enough to keep up with the white-heat of cultural and technological evolution that has happened in the last 5000 years (a blink of an eye in genetic evolution).

Conquering the sunk-cost fallacy is very tough.  Who has not poured time and money into something and wished they hadn’t, only to pour more in on the next occasion?  We like to self-justify (to believe that we made good decisions in the past); who likes to say “I was a fool then”?  Then, we look for confirming evidence things are going our way.  “He stopped drinking for a week, and had a job last year.”

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One technique is to create an imaginary scenario.  Imagine you parachuted into the (house, relationship, investment) for free, with nothing invested.  What would you do then?  If the answer is “run for the hills,” then you have your answer.

2. The Planning Fallacy

A second bias which causes enormous stress is the “planning fallacy.”  Humans suck at estimating how long things will take. Partly, we like to believe we are super-human, but mostly we are deluded about how complex things get.  As a writer, I’m constantly amazed that the last 5% of a project takes 30% of the time.  The average overrun on big technology projects is 27%, and many really big ones overrun by one hundred percent or more!  A group of students were asked to estimate how long a term paper would take, their “best case” guess was 29 days, and the “worse case” (excrement hits the fan) was 48 days.  They took an average of 55 days!

tough decisions

    How much stress and misery, I wonder, comes from people in offices saying “I can do it by Friday,” only to find that a couple of more Fridays are required?  We like to people-please, and to look confident and competent, but we are incompetent at estimating how long things take!

    3. Optimism Bias

    Our final bias rears its head in conflict situations, where everyone is sure of their “facts” and confident in their predictions about how different actions will pan out.  This family of biases means we take a rosy view of our knowledge, and a dim view of other’s.  Nobody is as right as they think they are.

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    Professor Philip Tetlock has studied expert predictions over a lifetime.  He found that experts (real experts, not talk radio experts) who were 100% sure of an outcome were wrong 25% of the time.  Further, when they thought an outcome had “no chance,” it happened 15% of the time.  What percentage of people are above average listeners?  96%!

    This “confidence without competence” is one cause of conflict running out of control.  People who are dogmatically sure of themselves beget adversaries who become similarly dogmatic. The next time you are in a conflict situation, make a table with two columns; write the facts (as you see them) in one column, and your opinions and conclusions in the other column. Ask your adversary to do the same (nicely!).  Check off the facts on which you agree, and where you disagree. Do some homework together.

    The difficult part of resolving conflict lies in the area of opinions, interpretations, values and predictions, so you are only part of the way there.  But going through the process of developing a shared set of facts will diminish the polarization, and allow you to get down to business.

    Learning about our biases can help.

    The sunk-cost fallacy keeps us stuck in a miserable past, throwing good time and money away after bad decisions. The planning fallacy creates tremendous stress as we struggle to meet unrealistic deadlines. Optimism biases make us feel sure of ourselves when we have no right to be, which leads us to prolong and exacerbate conflict.

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    We didn’t learn these things in school because they were not well understood, were not part of any college curricula (unless behavioral economics gives you jollies), and certainly far from mainstream understandings of how humans work.

    Learning about our biases puts us back in the game.  Like sharpshooters who correct for wind velocity and direction, knowing our thinking is skewed in a particular direction means we can auto-correct, make better decisions, and get more of what we want in life.

    More by this author

    Cognitive biases and decisions Three Cognitive Biases That Cost You Money, Stress, and Happiness Three things a skeptic should know about neuroscience Forget Resolutions: If You Only Do One Thing to Get Ready for 2014, Do This!

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    Last Updated on June 19, 2019

    8 Life-Changing Skills You Can Learn in Less Than 6 Months

    8 Life-Changing Skills You Can Learn in Less Than 6 Months

    Everyone has the ability to learn a life-changing skill not just this year, but in the next 6 months.

    By life-changing, I mean something that can have a positive impact in your life moving forward, even if it’s something you can’t envision today. Certain skills we can immediately reap the benefits of, while others will be life-changing when we least expect it.

    In this article, we’ll share 8 life-changing skills you can learn in 6 months, where you can learn them, and how you can get started today.

    1. Speed reading

    Bill Gates has been known to state that if he had one superpower, it would be the ability to read faster. What Bill and the rest of the mega-successful understand is that knowledge is power. The ability to process information faster from books, articles, and reports is what will help us learn faster, and therefore improve each aspect of our life faster as well.

    Where you can start learning: Speed reading courses are becoming more popular, as more people realize how important it is with the limited time we have. You can check out free courses like Read Speeder or you can start learning how to use Spritzlet, which allows you to speed read articles online with a browser extension.

    2. Public speaking

    Research shows that people fear public speaking more than death itself. There’s something terrifying about being in front of dozens or hundreds of people, and exposing yourself completely. It’s when you’re most vulnerable, but learning how to public speak is a life-changer.

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    Warren Buffett has given advice to recent graduates that the number one skill you can have to succeed is public speaking skills. Everything from communication, confidence, and sales is developed when you develop your public speaking skills.

    Where you can start learning: Luckily, there are great communities out there like Toastmasters that organize local meetups all around the world. You’ll find amazing public speakers that are looking to get to the next level to beginners that are just getting started. Check out Toastmasters’ website here.

    3. Spanish

    As the third most spoken language in the world, the ability to speak Spanish will allow you to reach over 500M people around the world. No matter where you live, knowing how to speak Spanish is becoming increasingly more important, with the Hispanic population and economy spreading quickly worldwide. If you’re living in the US, this is even more important, with over 30% of the population being Hispanic.

    Spanish is also on this list, because it’s one of the easiest languages to learn. Sure, Mandarin is an important language to learn, but it’s an incredibly difficult one to learn. If we were to measure the level of importance and the time to learn for all the languages available, Spanish would make it to the top of the list.

    One of the biggest reasons why people never reach fluency in any foreign language is: using the wrong method, and lack of time.

    It turns out that humans retain only 5% of what we learn from lectures, 20% of what we learn from apps (visual cues), and 90% of what we learn from immediate immersion. Yet, how do 90% of learn a new foreign language? Language schools (lectures), books, Duolingo (apps), etc that don’t provide the real-life immersion required for our brains to learn faster.

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    Where to get started: If you want the most effective way to learn a language, learning from real-life interactions is the best way to do it. There are great websites like Rype, which offers Spanish coaching for busy people, solving the issue of lack of time and bringing real-life immersion to your screen. With Rype, you can book as many lessons as you want, at any time of the day, any day of the week, allowing you to fit it into your schedule, no matter how busy you are.

    4. Accounting

    If you’re looking to get into business, accounting is one of the core fundamentals you’ll need to succeed. While you don’t need to be an expert, you definitely should understand the basics.

    This skill can also be used to manage your personal finances, to meet your financial goals, and having more control over your life.

    Where to get started learning: If you didn’t learn accounting in school, no worries. You can either teach yourself using books, or check out free accounting courses online.

    5. Microsoft Excel

    Most people reading this probably have a basic understanding of Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. While this is a good start, there are so many powerful functionalities that are hidden, which could make your life a lot easier.

    Excel is also a great asset to have whenever you’re looking for a job, as many corporations rely on Excel to organize and manage multiple parts of the business.

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    Where to get started learning: With the popularity of Excel, you can find tons of free resources and videos online to learn. Check out Excel Exposure, Lynda, and Excel with Business.

    6. Blogging/Vlogging

    Blogging is a powerful tool if you want to spread your ideas, build your brand, or grow your business. Since it was introduced, blogging has taken on a life of its own, and today there are ~2M blog posts being written on a daily basis.

    Where to get started learning: Anyone can start blogging today. All you need is a content-management system like WordPress, which is completely free. Personally, I think the best way to start learning how to blog is to just start writing. There are techniques you can learn on how to promote your blog, but the best way to grow your blog is to write great content.

    7. Weight training

    Yes, weight training is a skill. It’s not as advanced as learning how to code, nor will it take as long as learning a new language, if you just want to learn the basics.

    We’re not promising that you’ll get a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you will see much faster results for whatever goal you have, just by understanding how to workout properly. And of course, when you’re dealing with an activity that involves physical strain, you’ll always want to caution yourself.

    Where to get started learning: There are amazing body builders that are sharing all of their secrets for free on Youtube. You can check out Bodybuilding.com’s Youtube channel to get started.

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    8. Photo and video editing

    In the digital world that we live in, from Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook, there is no avoiding photos and videos. In fact, social media has increasingly gone away from text sharing and almost everything to photo and video editing.

    Where to get started learning: For photo editing, you can use Photoshop. For video editing, you can use iMovie or Final Cut Pro. Keep in mind, there are dozens of editing software tools for video and photo editing, but what’s more important are your editing skills, not the tool itself.

    Check out education websites like CreativeLIVE or Skillshare, where you can learn from experts themselves on how to best use design and software tools.

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