Decision traps

Roman Tschäppeler,
Decision Expert and Co-Founder Agree
"Cognitive biases are systematically occurring errors in thinking and perception that influence our behavior and decisions. Here are 22 key thinking errors you should think about before making big team decisions."

When we perceive, reflect, and judge, unconscious presuppositions determine our judgments.

When we need to act quickly, such radical heuristics help us to reduce complexity in order to arrive at a quick and perhaps correct decision.

On the other hand, we are helplessly at the mercy of cognitive distortions:
We fall into these thinking traps even when we actually have enough time and information. This is how bad decisions are made.

With the discovery of these irrational behavior patterns and thinking errors in recent decades, the belief in the nature of homo economicus has been called into question: We are apparently not utility-maximizing beings, but statistically illiterate and sometimes quite lazy in thinking.

Research around these cognitive biases is far from complete. It is controversial how much thinking errors can be prevented at all. What is certain, however, is that quick thinking influences our decisions, and thus also our collective decisions.

#1 Confirmation Bias

We ignore information that contradicts our own beliefs.

If your fellow decision-makers present arguments in a negotiation that run counter to your own convictions, you should pause. You are primarily looking for confirmation in their arguments. The fact that we are "open to all arguments" is only true to a limited extent.

With Agree you can easily get information and opinions from others. Try it out!

#2 Projection Bias

We believe that one's preferences and choices will remain the same in the future.

We assume ourselves to have little capacity for change and decide on the basis of our current preferences, even if longer-term effects of a decision are to be expected. Decision participants should therefore have a certain skepticism about their own basic assumptions and address them in a joint decision-making process.

#3 Loss Aversion Bias

Losses are weighted higher than equivalent gains.

Because we have already invested time, money and energy in an idea, we hold on to wrong decisions even when it no longer makes sense to maintain that decision.

A dedicated project group can reinforce this emotion. Therefore, if possible, points of no return should not be built into projects. In other words, it should always be possible to stop projects. The duration of the validity of the decision can be discussed and determined at the decision point. Scenarios for an exit and stop-rules are part of the monitoring already at the beginning of a project.

With Agree you can specify how long the decision is valid in the description of the decision. Try it out!

#4 Authority Bias

We are believers in authority.

People are more influenced by information from an authoritative figure than from people of lower social status, regardless of the actual content of the information.

Are you an authority figure in team decision-making? Who among the decision-makers:has expertise and interpretive power? Who is new to the group, who has been there a long time? Don't be fooled: Even if you have flat hierarchies, there are informal authorities.

This bias can be mitigated by not giving equal weight to each vote in a binding or advisory vote. For example, Seniors' decision counts single, Juniors' decision counts double.

#5 False Casuality

We draw the wrong conclusions.

There is a correlation between the number of nesting storks and birth rates in rural areas. But no causality! Not because of the storks there are more children, but because storks prefer rural areas for nesting and families like to settle in the country. Only when there is a cause and effect relationship between two characteristics does the circumstance become causality.

In collaborative design thinking processes, we look for connections between what people want and what we think they want. Check to see if your assumptions are causal - or just correlational.

With Agree, you can easily involve others in decisions and have them check whether assumptions in your proposal are causal or correlational. Try it out!

#6 Action Bias

We tend to want to take active action, even if the action might turn out to be useless or even harmful.

So we decide to do things in order to be able to act, even if it would be better not to make a decision.
At the other end of the action bias is "paralysis through analysis." - We do nothing at all anymore because there is always more to analyze.

With Agree you can set deadlines for decisions. Participants will be reminded automatically. Try it out!

#7 Self Serving Bias

We prefer decisions that put us in the right light.

We try to increase our self-worth in our decisions. When we are successful, we gladly take responsibility for the success. Or we protect our self-worth: we refuse to take responsibility when failure occurs.

Who will take the blame in group decision-making? Who will take the blame, who the fame? Are all participants in the decision jointly responsible? If so, are they all equally responsible? Such questions should be clarified before the group decision.

#8 Framing Bias

We do not choose between options, but between descriptions of options.

‍The yogurt has a fat content of 5%. Or it is 95% fat-free.This framing of what is actually the same statement influences our thinking and decision-making behavior more than we b is

So when your team hears, sees, or reads a presentation: What is being evaluated? The content or the frame in which the content is conveyed? When you prepare a decision yourself: How neutrally and objectively can you prepare and present the options for the decision? How urgent and important is the decision? And who says so?

With Agree you can add text descriptions and links to the options. Try it out!

#9 Conformity Bias

We tend to decide the way our environment decides.

The most pronounced form of this distortion is groupthink: There is now only one unified opinion. There is a danger of self-censorship in the event of dissenting opinions.

One approach to solving this problem is to obtain the opinions of the decision-makers separately and anonymously in advance. Likewise, the actual election can be conducted anonymously.

With Agree you can make anonymous group decisions. Try it out!

#10 Strategic misrepresentation

We emphasize the strengths (benefits) and conceal the weaknesses (costs).

Where plans are forged, high costs are often incurred. We like to emphasize the strengths of a project in order to put it in a good light, to push it through and finally to realize it. In the process, we tend to become overoptimistic. We color nicely, omitting some cost disadvantages. What are the true costs?

In a group decision with cost implications, one discussion question might be: How do we decide if we assume costs will be twice as high as calculated here? How if they become four times as high? What if the expected profit is not half as much? Include such questions from the beginning and play out different scenarios.

#11 Bandwagon Effect

The follower effect says that we like to choose options that are likely to be successful.

We want to elect people who are likely to win. We want to advocate in the workshop for the idea that is likely to be implemented. And we are guided by ideas that others have already successfully implemented.

So when we decide together, we might want to disclose whether our opinion is based on role models and, if so, which ones?

With Agree you can set that results are only displayed after the deadline has been reached. This way the participants are not influenced by the others. Try it out!

#12 Law of Triviality

We spend much more time processing the unimportant than the important.

"The time spent on an agenda item is inversely proportional to its respective cost." That's Parkinson's Law of Triviality. And we know it from the last meeting: the debriefing of the workshop on the digitization strategy took 30 minutes of the meeting time, while the evaluation of the new coffee supplier took 90 minutes.

To prevent this disproportion in group decision-making processes, there is the following method: one meeting (or one Agree) per decision. If important and urgent matters are already prioritized in the decision design, there is less opportunity in the actual meeting to slip into secondary matters.

With Agree you can create rankings or votes to prioritize together with others. Try it out!

#13Pro-innovation bias

Innovators assume that everyone has been waiting for this one (their!) innovation.

Most theories and research designs assume that an innovation will be seen as beneficial by consumers, even if consumers have not yet engaged with the innovation. One hopes(s) that the whole society will immediately and unconditionally want nuclear power (1960s), we will all go paperless (1990s), and half of life will soon take place in the metaverse (20s).

In many group decisions, the current media discussion resonates - our decisions at the moment (2022) must be "greentech" and "something with TikTok and GenZ", for example. Question for the decision group: do the decisions really have to have something to do with that? What is our fear of missing out?

#14 Anchoring Bias/Effect

We allow ourselves to be influenced by arbitrary information.

‍The first number or piece of information we hear on a given topic sets an anchor and compares all coming information with this anchor. It doesn't matter if this number or information has anything to do with the topic at all! People who receive the number 5 as an anchor ("Would you donate $5 to save seabirds?") gave an average of $20. People who received $400 as an anchor gave an average of $143. This cognitive bias, like many others, can be manipulatively abused.

We (in a group) can hardly escape the anchor effect, even if we think we can.But we can talk about the anchors set and make assumptions.

With Agree you can set the options to be ordered randomly. Try it out!

#15 Choice Overload

The more options we have, the greater the fear of not making the right decision

Too many decision alternatives hinder the decision-making process. But so do too few. In a legendary experiment, Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper found out that too many jam varieties at the supermarket tasting table confuse customers, while too few reduce the appeal of the product range. With a large selection of 24 varieties, 60% of customers tried at least one variety, but only 3% bought. With a smaller selection of six varieties, only 40 % of the passers-by sampled, but 30 % bought a jar of jam afterwards.

The preparation and presentation of the options should be done wisely and carefully. All options should be presented comparably. 5 or 7 options seem to be a kind of sweet spot, 2 are often too few, over a dozen too many. At most, the number of options must be reduced in a multi-step process. When in doubt: Eliminate your options!

With Agree you can create rankings or votes and let participants choose from different options. Try it out!

#16 Planning fallacy

We notoriously underestimate the time and other resources needed to accomplish our planned undertakings.

Knowledge and innovation work are difficult to calculate. This often leads to planning errors. This is due to the subjective perception of time, which usually deviates from the actual time sequences. This fallacy affects not only the planning of new tasks, but also tasks that are similar to those already performed. We believe we can estimate the required resources from experience.

In order to make robust decisions in the group, the resource allocation should be as well budgeted as possible for the options. The group can achieve this by using different types of budgeting (top down and bottom up estimates, approximate estimate, experience estimate).

With Agree, you can add a description to options, for example, to note the cost or the time required. Try it out!

#17 Zero Risk Bias

Although we identify risks, we hardly weight their probability of occurrence.

We take out a more expensive travel insurance to eliminate the consequential damages of an actually small risk (loss of luggage or robbery). We would rather eliminate a 5% risk to 0% than reduce a 50% risk to 25%. When making group decisions, we must ask ourselves if this fact is reflected in the options. Do we favor decisions that we can make risk-free only because of the lure of not having to experience surprises? If so, is that desirable for the decision objective?

#18 Reactive Devaluation

We tend to reject proposals in negotiations that come from people or groups we dislike.

In a U.S. study in 1986, a proposal for nuclear disarmament was made between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. 90% of the interviewed U.S. experts rated the study as positive - if the proposal was supposed to come from the U.S. itself. Only 44% still found the proposal good when it was presented as a Soviet proposal.

In the team, we evaluate not only the proposal itself, but also the:sender:in. Thus, in the decision-making process, readiness to compromise should be explicitly and clearly indicated in critical negotiations. In addition, radical openness can help to perceive the "enemy" less as a threat, but only as a decision opponent:in with different values and opinions.

#19 Mere Exposure Effect

Awareness creates a positive attitude.

We like things that we know: The sheer familiarity bias describes the psychological effect that the mere repeated perception of a thing or person that is initially evaluated neutrally results in a more positive evaluation. If contact with the thing or person is repeated several times, we also speak of the "familiarity principle". However, the effect can also turn into the opposite: A pop song is not as good the first time as it is the 10th time, and the attractiveness decreases the 100th time. If we are exposed to a thing or person too much, it can lose its appeal.

In the team decision-making process, we should ask ourselves: Who in the group is already aware of the choice options, and who is not? And: are we as a whole team affected by this effect? Have we already evaluated such or similar ideas several times?

#20 Goal Gradient Effect

The closer we are to a goal, the more likely we are to want to reach it.

We exert ourselves more the closer we are to a desired goal. This can be observed in lab rats and free-ranging humans. Those who already have more than half of the stamps on their coffee shop loyalty card will fill the second half faster than the first. Shortly before reaching the fundraising goal, donations intensify in crowdfunding.

When we make decisions in a group, there are two factors that should be discussed: What are our common goals? How close or far away are we from achieving them? To what extent does this proposal move us closer to that goal? In choosing options, are we consciously choosing a path that will get us there faster than one that might be better in the longer term?

#21 Gambler Fallacy

We infer events in the future from events in the past.

We are lousy statisticians. We have just flipped a coin four times in a row upside down. The probability of flipping the same side five times in a row is 0.5 to the power of 5 = 0.03125. So we think the chance of flipping heads again is 1 in 32 (= 0.03125). No. Wrong. On the next roll, the chance of heads is exactly 50%.

When designing options, care must be taken to ensure that projections, statistics, and data used as a basis for decision-making are understood together. In addition, it must be clarified whether the inference from a past event can be made to the present event where a decision must be made.

With Agree you can add information and data to your suggestions so that everyone is on the same level of knowledge. Try it out!

#22 Distinction Bias

We distinguish two options more intensively when we evaluate them simultaneously than when we evaluate them separately.

We want to buy a TV set. In the store are all good TV sets, with different prices. Two come into question. The difference in quality is visible in a direct comparison, but not huge. We decide to buy the better, but also more expensive set in a simultaneous comparison(joint evaluation). How would we decide, however, if we had evaluated both of them one after the other and independently of each other (single evaluation)? We would not have noticed the small difference, we would probably have bought the cheaper one.

In group processes, this bias, which has not yet been investigated too well, is of great importance: If one is to choose from two options, it can be discussed beforehand whether one evaluates them in direct comparison or one after the other. Accordingly, the differences turn out to be larger or smaller.