Three Self-Delusions That Influence Your Decisions and Productivity

August 21, 2011: By:  Kevin Purdy contributed to Fast Company
Why do you put things off, buy over-priced items, and stick with decisions that aren’t paying off? Your strangely wired brain, silly. The author of You Are Not So Smart shows us a few common mental defects, fallacies, and traps to watch out for. 

David McRaney spends a lot of time thinking about all the ways thinking doesn’t work. He catalogues delusions, fallacies of thinking, and the psychological short-circuits that cause procrastination, groupthink, and poor decisions. But McRaney swears his index of common mental shortcomings actually inspires him–and could inspire you to know thy working self.

You Are Not So Smart, McRaney’s blog and forthcoming book, is intentionally labeled as a “Celebration of Self-Delusion.” Sure, topics like the bystander effect, showing how bigger crowds encourage less help for people in trouble, and the backfire effect, where people learn to reject science when it questions their beliefs, are likely to get under anyone’s skin after some reflection. But McRaney says that understanding our mental malfuctions should inspire us.

“(It’s) an appeal to be more humble and recognize we can’t always overcome these things, so we should factor them into our lives, our business practices, our politics,” McRaney wrote in an email exchange. “If we know we are all equally susceptible to certain fallacies, biases, heuristics, prejudices, manipulations–we can use that knowledge to appeal to our better angels.”

Here are a few of the self-delusions McRaney writes about that are most apt to throw you off during those 40 hours you’re paid to think straight and make decisions.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

You’d like to believe that you can evaluate the future worth of a project, an investment, or just a laptop with the stoic gaze of a Wall Street lifer. But you tend to favor those things you’ve already “invested” in, because otherwise–horror of horrors–you’d have made a mistake in your past.

That’s the sunk cost fallacy. Another short version: The pain of losing something is twice as strong as the joy in gaining the same exact thing. McRaney wrote that this single understanding has made the biggest change in his life. “There are a lot of applications, like ejecting from a career path, a degree, or a relationship instead of staying the course, just because you’ve already invested a lot of time and effort into it. It’s a silly thing we all do, and I used to fall prey to that one every day.”

The Anchoring Effect

When you’ve chosen from a set of options, be they shirts, work bids, or employees, you like to tell yourself that you found the sweet spot between price and value. In reality, the first option you saw–the white oxford number, the lowball offer, the woman with the non-profit experience–has a significant impact on what you end up choosing.

McRaney illustrates the anchoring effect with an experiment in which researchers described an item, like a bottle of wine or a cordless trackball pointer, and then had volunteers write down the last two digits of their Social Security number–just as a joke, ha, ha, now let’s actually bid. In the end, people with higher Social Security digits paid up to 346 percent more than those with lower numbers.

Procrastination

What more is there to learn about the nearly universal vice of putting things off? Plenty. McRaney states that writing on the topic of procrastination was “telling my life story.”

In exploring the science behind that ever-growing pile of dishes in the sink, you learn about present bias, our conscious inability to notice that our tastes change over time. He presents a glimpse at the struggle for delayed gratification through the “marshmallow test.” And another term you probably understand as well as anybody else, but maybe didn’t have a name for: hyperbolic discounting. In other words, you learn that being stronger in the face of your every mental instinct requires that you be “adept at thinking about thinking,” as McRaney writes:

You must realize there is the you who sits there now reading this, and there is a you sometime in the future who will be influenced by a different set of ideas and desires, a you in a different setting where an alternate palette of brain functions will be available for painting reality.

… This is why food plans like Nutrisystem work for many people. Now-you commits to spending a lot of money on a giant box of food which future-you will have to deal with. People who get this concept use programs like Freedom, which disables Internet access on a computer for up to eight hours, a tool allowing now-you to make it impossible for future-you to sabotage your work.

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