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By Peter Facione
The heuristic known as Illusion of Control is evident in many situations. Many of us over-estimate our abilities to control what will happen. We make plans for how we are going to do this or that, say this or that, manipulate the situation this way or that way, share or not share this information or that possibility, all the time thinking that some how our petty plans will enable us to control what happens. We act as if others are dancing on the ends of the strings that we are pulling, when in actuality the influences our words or actions have on future events may be quite negligible.
At times we do have some measure of control. For example we may exercise, not smoke, and watch our diet in order to be more fit and healthy. We are careful not to drink if we are planning to drive so that we reduce the risks of being involved in a traffic accident. But at times we simply are mistaken about our ability to actually exercise full control over a situation. Sadly we might become ill even if we do work hard to take good care of ourselves. Or we may be involved in an accident even if we are sober. Our business may fail even if we work very hard to make it a success. We may not do as well on an exam as we might hope even if we study hard.
Related to the Illusion of Control heuristic is the tendency to misconstrue our personal influence or responsibility for past events. This is called Hindsight Bias. We may over-estimate the influence our actions have had on events when things go right, or we may underestimate our responsibility or culpability when things go wrong. We have all heard people bragging about how they did this and how they did that and, as a result, such and such wonderful things happened. We made these great plans and look how well our business did financially. Which may be true when the economy is strong; but not when the economy is failing.
It is not clear how much of that success came from the planning and how much came from the general business environment. Or, we have all been in the room when it was time to own up for some thing that went wrong and thought to ourselves, hey, I may have had some part in this, but it was not entirely my fault. “It wasn’t my fault the children were late for school, hey I was dressed and ready to go at the regular time.” As if seeing that the family was running late I had no responsibility to take some initiative and help out.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over
and over again while expecting a different outcome.”
Research on our shared heuristic patterns of decision-making does not aim to evaluate these patterns as necessarily good or bad patterns of thinking. I fear that my wording of them above may not have been as entirely neutral and descriptive as perhaps it should have been. In truth, reliance on heuristics can be an efficient ways of deciding things, given how very complicated our lives are. We cannot devote maximal cognitive resources to every single decision we make.
Those of us who study these heuristic thinking phenomena are simply trying to document how we humans do think. There are many useful purposes for doing this. For example, if we find that people repeatedly make a given kind of mistake when thinking about a commonly experienced problem, then we might find ways to intervene and to help ourselves not repeat that error over and over again.
This research on the actual patterns of thinking used by individuals and by groups might prove particularly valuable to those who seek interventions which could improve how we make our own heath care decisions, how we make business decisions, how we lead teams of people to work more effectively in collaborative settings, and the like.
Popular culture offers one other myth about decision-making which is worth questioning. And that is the belief that when we make reflective decisions we carefully weigh each of our options, giving due consideration to all of them in turn, before deciding which we will adopt. Although perhaps it should be, research on human decision-making shows that this simply is not what happens.4 When seeking to explain how people decide on an option with such conviction that they stick to their decision over time and with such confidence that they act on that decision, the concept that what we do is build a Dominance Structure has been put forth.
In a nutshell this theory suggests that when we settle on a particular option which is good enough we tend to elevate its merits and diminish its flaws relative to the other options. We raise it up in our minds until it becomes for us the dominant option. In this way, as our decision takes shape, we gain confidence in our choice and we feel justified in dismissing the other options, even though the objective distance between any of them and our dominant option may not be very great at all. But we become invested in our dominant option to the extent that we are able to put the other possibilities aside and act on the basis of our choice. In fact, it comes to dominate the other options in our minds so much that we are able to sustain our decision to act over a period of time, rather than going back to re-evaluate or reconsider constantly. Understanding the natural phenomenon of dominance structuring can help us appreciate why it can be so difficult for us to get others to change their minds, or why it seems that our reasons for our decisions are so much better than any of the objections which others might make to our decisions. This is not to say that we are right or wrong. Rather, this is only to observe that human beings are capable of unconsciously building up defenses around their choices which can result in the warranted or unwarranted confidence to act on the basis of those choices.