In a previous edition of ChangeAbility, I examined two, well-documented psychological traps and told you what you can do about them in order to make better decisions. These two traps were:
THE ANCHORING TRAP & THE STATUS-QUO TRAP
In this edition, I am discussing the following two traps:
THE SUNK-COST TRAP & THE CONFIRMING EVIDENCE TRAP
THE SUNK-COST TRAP
We all sometimes make choices in a way that justifies past choices, even when the past choices are no longer valid.
Imagine you have been standing in line at the post office for 15 minutes. You have a meeting with an important client coming up, and you run the risk of being late to the meeting if you keep standing in line. What do you do?
For many of us the thinking goes something like this, “Well, dam#$^%! I have already been standing in line for 15 minutes; it would be really stupid to give up my space now, so I will stand in line even if I end up being late to the important meeting.” We just fell into the sunk-cost trap. How so?
It’s simple: we are justifying our decision to keep standing in line by what we have done in the past (i.e. standing in line for 15 minutes already) and not by what is best going forward. Even if you have been standing in line for hours, you need to leave the line if your client meeting is more important than mailing those packages. As economists would say: it’s all about maximizing your utility going forward!
Other examples of the sunk-cost trap include business owners who pour enormous effort into improving the performance of an employee whom they should not have hired in the first place. It is also very common in banking. When a borrower’s business runs into trouble, a lender often advances additional funds in the hope that the business can turn around. If the business does have a good chance to do that, this is wise; otherwise it’s just throwing good money after bad.
Why can we not free ourselves from past decisions? Frequently, it is because we are unwilling to admit mistakes. If you, for example, fire a poor performer who you hired, you are making a public admission of poor judgment. It seems psychologically safer to let him or her stay on, even though that choice only compounds the error.
Sometimes a corporate culture reinforces the sunk-cost trap. If the penalties for making a decision that leads to poor outcome are overly severe, managers will be motivated to let failed projects drag on forever – in the vain hope that they will somehow turn around.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT THE SUNK-COST TRAP?
Make a conscious effort to set aside any sunk cost – whether psychological or economic – that will muddy your thinking about the choices at hand:
- Seek out and listen carefully to the views of people who were uninvolved with the earlier decision
- Examine why admitting earlier mistakes distresses you. If it’s your wounded self-esteem, deal with it head-on. Remind yourself that even smart choices can have bad consequences and that even the best and most experienced executives are not immune to errors in judgment
- Don’t cultivate a failure-fearing culture that makes employees perpetuate their mistakes. Lead by example by admitting your own mistakes
- Remember: “If you are in a hole, stop digging.” – Warren Buffet
THE CONFIRMING-EVIDENCE TRAP
Imagine you are the president of a successful, mid-size, Italian shoe manufacturer, considering whether to call off a planned plant expansion. For a while you have been concerned that your company won’t be able to sustain the rapid pace of growth of its exports. You fear that the value of the Euro will strengthen in coming months, making your goods more costly for overseas consumers. But before you put the brakes on the plant expansion, you decide to call up an old business school classmate, the CEO of a similar company that recently cancelled plans for a new factory, to check her reasoning. She presents a strong case that other currencies are about to weaken against the Euro. What do you do?
You’d better not let this conversation be the clincher because you’ve probably just fallen victim to the confirming-evidence trap. This bias leads us to seek out information that supports our existing instincts or points of view while avoiding information that contradicts it. What, after all, did you expect your acquaintance to give, other than a strong argument in favor of her decision?
Two fundamental psychological forces are at work here:
- We subconsciously decide what we want to do before we figure out why we want to do it.
- Our inclination is to be more engaged by things we like than by things we dislike – a tendency well documented even in babies. Naturally, we are drawn to information that supports our subconscious leanings.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT THE CONFIRMING EVIDENCE TRAP?
It’s not that you should not make the choice you are subconsciously drawn to. It’s just that you want to make sure it’s the smart choice. Here is how you put it to the test:
- Get someone you respect to play the devil’s advocate to argue against the decision you are contemplating. Better yet, build the counter-argument yourself. What are the strongest reasons to do something else?
- Be honest with yourself about your motives. Are you really gathering information to help you make a smart choice, or are you just looking for evidence confirming what you think you’d like to do?
- In seeking the advice of others, don’t ask leading questions that invite confirming evidence. If you find that an advisor always seems to support your point of view, find a new advisor. Do not surround yourself with yes-men (and women).
- When facing major decisions in your business or life, be sure to use the above techniques to avoid falling into the Sunk-Cost Trap and the Confirming Evidence Trap.
This article is based on: “Hammond, Ralph & Raiffa: The Hidden Traps in Decision Making,” Harvard Business Review, January 2006.