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For Better Decisions, Counter Cognitive Bias

Posted in Leadership, Productivity, and Scientists

In my last post, I encouraged scientists to trust their gut instincts more when making certain types of decisions, for example those involving leading and managing other people.   However, while intuitions can work well when evaluating others, they can be misleading when evaluating one’s self.  Some innate cognitive biases prevent us from forming a clear and realistic picture of what the future will hold if we take a particular course of action, and other biases cause us to overestimate the opinions others have of us.  These biases are documented and explained in psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness.

Gilbert claims that we overrate how well we know ourselves, underestimate our capacity to adapt to both good and bad situations, and fail to consider crucial factors that will play out in the future.   Gilbert blames these illusions on the cognitive limitations of the imagination, which also lead people to believe they differ from others more than they actually do.  According to Gilbert, looking at what makes others happy provides a more reliable indicator of your own potential happiness than imagining yourself in a future situation.  The takeaway message: learn to be more objective about yourself and about the decisions you make concerning your career trajectory. Rely less on your own imagination; instead, study what works for others.

In tandem with this approach, I suggest that you apply rationality in a new and different way when you find that self-doubts and fears interfere with carrying out your decisions. Use reason to challenge semi-conscious, self-destructive thoughts as they spontaneously arise.  For example, a scientist who submitted a paper to a journal several weeks ago might view the lack of response as a sign that the journal didn’t like the paper.  In fact, the journal may simply be delayed by a deluge of submissions.  The remedy in this case is to challenge the little voice that says “I knew it wasn’t good enough.  I can’t meet that journal’s standards.  I’m only fooling myself.” Mentally respond like a clever defense attorney, in effect saying, “What evidence do I have that the paper wasn’t good enough?  Could there be other reasons why I haven’t heard from the editors?  If I was incapable of meeting the journal’s standards, why would my colleagues who have published there encourage me to submit the manuscript?”  Then, instead of worrying, contact the editor and find out why you haven’t received word on your article. By learning to notice and then challenge these self-destructive thoughts, you can diminish their influence and replace them with a more evidence-based point of view.

This method of logically challenging self-destructive thinking is used in cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat depression, but it can have powerful applications off the couch as well.  For more about the theory, its empirical foundations, and how to apply it to your situation, I recommend Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism.

Combining the message of this blog post with the previous one, consider this proposition: you probably don’t trust your intuitions about others as much as you should, and you probably trust your intuitions about yourself more than you should.  You can achieve a better balance between the use of intuition and the use of reason in your judgments by judicious use of methods recommended by Gilbert and Seligman.  Working with a good professional coach can help you jumpstart this process, make changes more quickly, and apply your skills more effectively as a leader and manager.