“The Hidden Traps in Decision-Making”: A Classic Article from HBR

Here is an excerpt from a classic article written by John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney, and Howard Raiffa and published in Harvard Business Review (January 2006). To read the complete article, check out others, sign up for email alerts, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Illustration Credit: Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe

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Making decisions is the most important job of any executive. It’s also the toughest and the riskiest. Bad decisions can damage a business and a career, sometimes irreparably. So where do bad decisions come from? In many cases, they can be traced back to the way the decisions were made—the alternatives were not clearly defined, the right information was not collected, the costs and benefits were not accurately weighed. But sometimes the fault lies not in the decision-making process but rather in the mind of the decision maker. The way the human brain works can sabotage our decisions.

Researchers have been studying the way our minds function in making decisions for half a century. This research, in the laboratory and in the field, has revealed that we use unconscious routines to cope with the complexity inherent in most decisions. These routines, known as heuristics, serve us well in most situations. In judging distance, for example, our minds frequently rely on a heuristic that equates clarity with proximity. The clearer an object appears, the closer we judge it to be. The fuzzier it appears, the farther away we assume it must be. This simple mental shortcut helps us to make the continuous stream of distance judgments required to navigate the world.

Yet, like most heuristics, it is not foolproof. On days that are hazier than normal, our eyes will tend to trick our minds into thinking that things are more distant than they actually are. Because the resulting distortion poses few dangers for most of us, we can safely ignore it. For airline pilots, though, the distortion can be catastrophic. That’s why pilots are trained to use objective measures of distance in addition to their vision.

Researchers have identified a whole series of such flaws in the way we think in making decisions. Some, like the heuristic for clarity, are sensory misperceptions. Others take the form of biases. Others appear simply as irrational anomalies in our thinking. What makes all these traps so dangerous is their invisibility. Because they are hardwired into our thinking process, we fail to recognize them—even as we fall right into them.

For executives, whose success hinges on the many day-to-day decisions they make or approve, the psychological traps are especially dangerous. They can undermine everything from new-product development to acquisition and divestiture strategy to succession planning. While no one can rid his or her mind of these ingrained flaws, anyone can follow the lead of airline pilots and learn to understand the traps and compensate for them.

In this article, we examine a number of well-documented psychological traps that are particularly likely to undermine business decisions. In addition to reviewing the causes and manifestations of these traps, we offer some specific ways managers can guard against them. It’s important to remember, though, that the best defense is always awareness. Executives who attempt to familiarize themselves with these traps and the diverse forms they take will be better able to ensure that the decisions they make are sound and that the recommendations proposed by subordinates or associates are reliable.

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They focus on thes toward alternatives the six traps and explain HOW to avoid or overcome them when making a decision:

o Anchoring: Giving disxproportionate weight to the first information rceived
o Status Quo: Having a bias toward what perpetuates what James O’Toole characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom”
o Sunk Cost:
o Confirming Evidence:
o Framing:
o Estimating and Forecasting:

Their advice is timely and timeless.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

John S. Hammond is a consultant on decision making, a former professor of Harvard Business School in Boston, and a coauthor of Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions (Harvard Business School Press, 1998).
Ralph L. Keeney is a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina, and a coauthor of Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions (Harvard Business School Press, 1998).
Howard Raiffa is the Frank Plumpton Ramsey Professor of Managerial Economics (Emeritus) at Harvard Business School and a coauthor of Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions (Harvard Business School Press, 1998).
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