I’m biased, but that’s ok!
I am about to do something significant in my life and I want to manage risk and reduce it to as low as reasonably practical. This is an important decision that ill impact the rest of my life. I want to make sure I do everything I can so things don’t go wrong.
I’m sure this is a thought we have all had at one time or another. It seems sensible to want to reduce risk and make sure things don’t go wrong, but so often we underestimate how difficult this can be. We also underestimate how the non-conscious part of our brain has such an impact on how we ‘think’ about risk.
If we want to truly understand and deal with risk, we need to recognise that it is subjective and that our thinking about risk is biased in so many ways.
In risk and safety, we often use checklists as a way to identify and assess (deal with) risks. There are many tools available, but none that would quite do the job for what I am about to do. Bugger, a checklist could have made things so much easier, giving me a yes or no to any concern I had about the action I’m about to take. Using a checklist as a prompt to think about risk can be useful, but it also limits our thinking and use of imagination. Checklists also don’t take into account the many, many biases that impact on our thinking when it comes to risk.
With the type of decision I am making (in fact, with most decisions we make or actions we take) the risks can be hard to imagine, especially when I know that I am so biased in my thinking about risk. That is, I know that my thinking is influenced by what occurs in my non-conscious mind and it is so difficult to think objectively. So what are some of the biases associated with how we think about risk?
Ironically, the first bias I think of is availability bias. When I start to think about the decision I’m about to make, I remember someone I know who made the same decision just last week and things went very well for them. I was talking with the person about the decision yesterday so the details are still fresh in my mind. The details about the decision are readily available in my mind, hence the reference to ‘availability’. When I sit back and reflect further though (this time using the conscious part of my mind), I can think of many other examples where the decision didn’t go quite as well, it’s just that these examples happened a while ago and they aren’t something that quickly comes to mind, so they may not impact as much on the way my unconscious ‘thinks’ about them.
Next I think about the last time I made a decision like this and how it wasn’t so good. In fact things went pear shaped a few years after I made the decision last time. It got me worried that the same outcome might happen this time too. Why would things be different this time or could this be that ‘thing’ they call hindsight bias?
We see examples of hindsight bias at play in risk and safety all the time. How many times have you been to conduct an incident investigation and had pre-conceived ideas in your mind about what and how something occured? How many times have you been quick to jump to conclusions based on ‘what happened last time’? It is so hard to go into a situation similar to one we have been in before and not have that cloud our thinking and judgement.
I want to be positive about this decision though, it is a good time in my life and I’ve had nothing but positive feelings about this decision for about 18 months now. A lot of people are going to celebrate with me once I make this decision, in fact we have even organised a party to celebrate after the decision is made. But hang on, could this be that affect bias at play? When we feel good about something, this ‘affect’ can cloud how our non-conscious mind ‘thinks’ about things. ‘Affect’ can come into play in risk and safety too, how we are feeling when we make decisions and judgments will have an impact on how we act.
Finally I decide that I’ve done enough thinking about this and I make the call that I will go ahead and ‘just do it’. I can’t imagine anything that could go wrong, and I don’t want it to. I think that I’ve thought through this logically and rationally (and in reality, done a lot more thinking unconsciously too!). I think to myself, “I’ve weighed up all the possible options and compiled a list of all of the pros and cons, this decision is definitely right and I’m going with it.”
Did I hear someone say ‘hubris’, you know that ‘thing’ associated with over confidence?
Early next week, I will marry my wonderful fiancé. A significant and awesome decision that we are looking forward to. We know that we are taking a risk that will impact the rest of our lives. We know that our decisions about the risks are biased by what we have experienced before, by what we know and what is readily available to us, by how we feel about this, and because we have sunk so much into it. We are conscious that we may underestimate risk and that our confidence clouds our judgment, but we’ve decided the risks are worth taking. Most of our decision making and thinking about the risks associated with the decision have been made in our non-conscious mind.
This is no different to other decisions we make in life. All of our ‘thinking’ is clouded by biases, most of which we aren’t even conscious of. Once we get to know this and recognise our biases, we become better at being able to discern or deal with risk.
How biased are you when you make decisions?
Author: Robert Sams
Phone: 0424 037 112
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