Barriers to Good Decision Making

It’s important to remember that the plural of anecdote is not data –

Daniel Letritin,  McGill Montreal

We often don’t take decisions because we:

  1. Devalue one alternative – so we don’t think of the consequences or pains of one choice to allow us to make the other (‘I’ll be back home; I’m just going for one drink‘)
  2. Delegate the decision on someone else. (‘It wasn’t my fault, my friend invited me for a drink’. ‘I won’t give smoking until my wife does‘)
  3. Delegate the decision to something (‘I’ll wait until XYZ turns up’)
  4. We overestimate what we think we know
  5. We underestimate uncertainty (what we think we don’t know)
  6. We can be primed / anchored to target our guesses (e.g. estimating the number of cookies in a jar, after someone has given a random number)

“Good stories are hard to resist, even when they are wrong”

Gary Klein

(Gary Klein, Seeing what others don’t)

Failures in making decisions

(Nissam Taleb, Black Swan)

  1. The illusion of understanding or how everyone thinks. We think we know what is going on in the world that is more complicated (or random) than we realise
  2. The retrospective distortion. We often assess matters after the fact, and so things look clearer or we justify our decisions in retrospect
  3. The overvaluation of factual information. We use statistics and measures and overreliance on ‘authority’
  4. Cognitive distortions(deletion, distortion, generalisation and blame)
  5. ‘The round-trip fallacy’ – Almost all terrorists are men does not mean almost all men are terrorists
  6. We assume that no evidence means that a problem doesn’t exist, – what we see is not necessarily all there is
  7. Error of confirmation – we focus on pre-selected information we can see and generalise from it to what is unseen
  8. The narrative fallacy – we fool ourselves with stories that cater for our thirst for distinct patterns
  9. Outliers: Human nature cannot cope with people who don’t follow the norms
  10. Fixation error: We tunnel for data – we focus on a few well-defined sources of uncertainty or specific risks. We may miss important information because we don’t look for it
  11. Primal Freeze– stress and fear floods the brain with cortisol and our cognitive functions are hampered (working memory, processing, recalling facts) It doesn’t disable procedural memory – hence the training for people in stressful information (surgeons, soldiers etc.)
  12. Confirmation Bias – Dopamine in the pre-frontal cortex inclines us to ignore evidence that challenges long-held beliefs – so we don’t need to constantly change our models. I.e. we ignore data we don’t like.
  13. Groupthink – We bend our decisions towards the majority. These can be driven by: (Dutton, 2014)
  14. A dominant charismatic leader
  15. Bombardment with positive pointers (especially those which are difficult to verify or debate)
  16. External pressure (to get things done)
  17. Discouragement or active sniffing out of dissenting perspectives and viewpoints
  18. Outcome Bias – We get used to a problem because it hasn’t hurt us yet
  19. Technical Clash – What we don’t understand we don’t consider or assume to be easier than the things we do understand.

False evidence

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble;
it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so 


(Butler, et al., 2006)

  • Biased Thinking – over relying on certain people or assumptions
  • Prejudices & how to overcome them:
    • Look for evidence to disconfirm your belief
    • Consider opposing evidence fully and ask of old beliefs need modifying
    • Keep your preferences and inclinations out of it
    • Don’t worry about modifying your beliefs
    • Being misled by the way information is presented (e.g. good attributes first vs. bad ones)
    • Being misled by others – the halo effect (just because of the credentials), the way it is presented, and using ‘science’
    • Assuming that the personality and situation are the same (e.g. hard working in the office, but tired at home)
    • Being misled by association where there isn’t causality
    • What is the cultural presumption
  • Categorical thinking – supposing there is only one right choice
  • Not thinking beyond the decision – assuming that the decision will fix things for good
  • Conservatism – assuming what happened last time is bound to happen again, so do the same as last time
  • Confusing problem solving with worrying – assuming if it takes time to decide it must be a worry, rather
  • Information tangles – forgetting or misinterpreting information
  • Expecting the feeling to come first and the decision follows – waiting until you feel right about the decision. You might worry feel better after the decision is made and action carried out rather than before
  • Other ‘bad’ feelings – other distress influences the decision-making capability – e.g. fatigue, depression, illness, relationship problems
See also

Logical Fallacies