Cognitive Illusions: Don’t believe everything you think

 In Decision-making, Insights, Realizer Blog, Science

Our brains are amazing things.

They enable us to do many things which computers can’t do, for example ride a bike, see a single candle from 5 kms away, and predict what other people are thinking and feeling.

The evolution of our brains is nothing short of spectacular. Let me give you an example. One of the key evolutions which has enabled humans to prosper is the ability to imagine the future, to play out in our mind what would happen if we did a certain action, without having to actually do it.  So, for example, if I ask you whether making liver & onion ice cream will be a good idea, you can imagine roughly what it would taste like. That is actually amazing.

Most of our early childhood development is about empathy: learning to use the cues from people’s words, body language and expressions to understand how they feel, and predict what they might do next. If you think about any time you go out in public, we all follow roughly the same rules, so we can all function pretty well and get to work without worrying that someone might suddenly attack you. These social norms and conventions of behaviour are what make the world function with 7 billion people in it. And we only notice them when we see someone acting strangely, for example talking to themselves. When this happens we are suddenly uptight as we don’t feel confident that we can predict the “strange person’s” behaviour.

Blind spots

Luckily this feeling of uncertainty is quite rare. However we should feel uncertain more often, because there are many other cases where we are over confident in our predictions of what might happen. We can call these blind spots.

One profound illustration of a blind spot, is our perception of our free will and autonomy. Millgram’s experiment on obedience to authority clearly shows that people believe we make our decisions independently, but in fact we are heavily influence by authority figures.

These blind spots are also called Cognitive Illusions or Cognitive Biases, and Dan Ariely makes a great introduction to them in his TED talk called Are We Really In Control of Our Decisions.

The metaphor he uses is of visual illusions – despite our amazing visual abilities, we sometimes can be fooled by our own brain. The parallel is in decision-making: we are very very good at most decisions – but sometimes the way our own brain works can fool us.

There’s another  example of our where our supposedly rational decisions are actually hugely influenced by our mood, and our levels of brain chemicals. It’s about judges deciding whether to grant parole.

2 more ways decisions are difficult

To add to the blind spots, there are two other ways in which decisions are difficult. The first is complexity. For example, when making a decision it is almost impossible to take into account more than 3-4 criteria at the same time. So when there are lots of criteria to think about we often make poor judgements as we can only see part of the picture at any one time. The way around this is of course to limit the criteria to the most important and write down or draw a map of how the options satisfy the 3 criteria –  then you can see the full picture easily at once.

The second is group dynamics. Decisions made by teams are supposed to be better than those by individuals as we get diverse opinions, multiple options, and we challenge each other. Unfortunately in more than 50% of cases, group decisions are worse than the decision which would have been made by the most talented individual in the group.

Seeing the big picture can be hard

Check out this video, the Monkey Business Illusion, make sure you watch it to the end, it’s about 2 minutes.


I’ve written elsewhere about blind spots that affect us in our work life: including solving the wrong problem, being the devil’s advocate, and over-using our gut feel.

These blind spots cause us to be over confident in our own abilities. In fact, a little bit of over confidence is often a good thing. But too much can be disastrous if you look a the example of Quaker buying Snapple.

Often we don’t see the full picture as well as we should, we over-rely on inaccurate gut feel, and we ignore the possibility that we might be wrong.

Can you admit you’re wrong?

Kathryn Schulz makes a great metaphor in her TED talk, “On being wrong.” She says that although we accept that in the past we might have been wrong sometimes, and that in the future we will be wrong sometimes, in the present tense we feel 100% certain that everything we think right now is correct. She likens this to walking round our whole lives in a bubble of rightness.

Let me poke your bubble

One of the best things you can do to make better decisions is to be aware of your “bubble of rightness” and to poke at it and test it, see if you might just be wrong. Moreover, you need to encourage other people around you to poke at your bubble too, test its strength. And you can help others: learn to tactfully poke their bubble to help them make great decisions and avoid being wrong.

Another way of saying this is that you need to have a diverse team around you who aren’t afraid to express different points of view, and challenge your opinion. Having yes men or women round you might feel comfortable, but it means there’s only one opinion on the table. As they, if you’re always the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

Check your emotional filter

When it comes to gut feel and emotions, we need to harness these properly. The problem with them both is that we tend to react very quickly to other people’s ideas, with our gut feel – but then we don’t say this, we come up with post rationalisations of why we do or don’t like it. Instead you need to celebrate your gut feel and put it out there. And then move on to talk facts.

Another way you can control the role of your emotions is to check your own emotional filter. The easiest way to do this is to imagine the decision you’re facing is being faced by someone else, a friend of yours. What would you advise them to do? This instantly allows you to see the big picture, the long term, and frees you from some of the short term pleasure or pain that may be swaying your decision. The classic example here is how much easier it is to advise a friend about whether or not to break up, compared to making the decision yourself.

Plan to be wrong

The final tool I recommend to you is called a pre-mortem. Imagine it’s a year’s time and your project has died a death, why might it have done so? That’s a pre-mortem, and it surfaces 30% more real risks than normal analysis of a plan. I can vouch for it being a brilliant way to understand and manage risk in decision-making. It allows you to truly embrace the idea you might be wrong, and to work out why.

If you embrace the idea of being wrong, you can end up being amazingly right

One of my favourite examples of tackling a problem in a different way is the Speed Camera Lottery, where they question the way we change people’s behaviour, and show a real insight beyond the obvious – with great results.

Written by Rob Pyne