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This is the second in a series of posts exploring cognitive biases, a frequent source of blind spots which inhibit an open mind. Read the first post here.

There’s a kid in my neighborhood – a young teenager – who’s not that keen on self-propelled transport machines. He likes the idea of them. He has his own. But when it comes to skateboards and bikes, he’s a little shaky.

I’ve tried to help him a few times. But it’s…odd. Once on the bike or board, he becomes a scared little boy, grasping my arm as if his life depended on it. He’s a pretty big guy and he holds onto me like he’s on the wing of a plane.

man on wing of a plane

It occurred to me that he needs to experience some independence. He needs to see he can do it on his own. And if he can’t, he needs to see that he can fall, survive, and learn to avoid it next time.

It’s not how many times we get thrown from the horse. It’s how many times we get back on.

Right? So I let go.

man falls off skateboard

He fell. And that’s when I heard it.

“See, that’s why I don’t want to ride my skateboard.”

What? That’s ridic! You never said you didn’t want to ride it. You probably pleaded to get the board in the first place. You’re only saying that because you fell.

I didn’t say that, of course. He’s a kid. But I thought it.

He only decided he didn’t want to ride his board after he fell. Because he fell. Before then, he was game.

That’s not legit. Is it?

Hayl no! It’s a cognitive bias known as outcome bias

Outcome bias is a subtle scourge. It’s decision-making bacteria eating the molecular make-up of your needs and desires.

It will blind you from deep, authentic motivations and keep you from making more appropriate, rewarding decisions.

What is outcome bias?

Outcome bias is the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of judging it based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.

It’s like when your boss tells you fifty times that the company doesn’t need social media, and after you post something to Facebook that gets 50 new subscribers, he says, “I’m very passionate about the benefits of social media.”

Franco goes Huh

He’s not concerned with what went into his decision BEFORE the Facebook post. He’s only evaluating his decision based on the results of the action.

Worse, now that he’s seen positive results from that one choice, chances are good he’ll continue to make choices the same, misguided way.

Likewise, if the results went the other way – you spent time on social media with no results – your boss could just as easily have gloated, even if it was still an objectively good decision.

Stephen Colbert with I told you so sign

And you’ll wring your hands with frustration because he’s not making decisions based on logic, prior evidence, or even recommendations. He just knows what he’s seen.

Why do we have outcome bias?

It alleviates the need to put more of our attention on details before making a decision. If we’re not willing to do the cost/benefit analysis, look at the case studies, listen to our advisors, get feedback from tests, or anything like that, we can still pat ourselves on the back if we get a good result. And we can chalk it up to chance when we don’t.

It’s the equivalent of saying the end justifies the means.

We’ve all heard that before in one form or another.

Mushroom cloud - end justifies the means

What can we do about it?

As with other blind spots, just having the self-awareness to look at how you make decisions is a large part of getting beyond it. For this, you should seek honest input from someone you highly respect. That can bring the bias to light.

Otherwise, you’ll need to make some changes for change’s sake.

Throw some decision-making spaghetti at the walls and see what sticks.

Make some decisions based on other people’s input, on existing data, on previous successes, on spreadsheets….

robot reindeer

The real-life feedback from that will illuminate your patterns and assumptions, providing you with the context to reconsider how you act in the future.

Don’t let outcome bias blind you from being the thoughtful, considerate genius you are

Resist the urge to judge your decisions based (only) on the most recent result. Make your choices based on all the information available and live with the outcome – good or bad.

You’ll be wheeling over outcome bias like it was a pebble in the Tour de France.

man on miniature bike


Photo credit: Wallace Kirkland—Time & Life Pictures Getty Images


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