Decision traps, flaws and fallacies.

Learn from my unexpected big decision.

As a young editorial intern at the Chicago Daily News, the city’s famed afternoon daily newspaper, I was relegated to writing obituaries and the weather forecast, and getting cheeseburgers and chips for columnist Mike Royko at the Billy Goat Tavern made famous on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. But I was sent on a few meaty assignments, the biggest being part of the team covering the “police riot” in Chicago’s Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

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Emmett Dedmon at the University of Chicago

As memorable as that summer was for me, the best thing that came out it was critical input into a big decision I faced. The newspaper’s Managing Editor Emmett Dedmon made a point of meeting with each intern and talking to us about our future. “So what are you going to do when you graduate [from journalism school]?” he asked me. “Oh, I’ll probably get a master’s degree in journalism.” He responded, “Why in the world would you do that? Unless you want to teach, get a degree in something useful, like business or law.”

My life was changed by unexpected input into my decision making from a noted journalist and World War II veteran whose plane was shot down and who then spent two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp. I pursued my MBA and a career path which has led to meaningful business roles, strategy consulting and, I hope, useful thought leadership.

Making good decisions is at the heart of effective strategic planning and strategic management. That’s why I have been taking a deep dive into how we can make big decisions better. Let’s examine my life changing exchange with Emmett Dedmon to see what might have been at work that affected my decision making process.

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First of all, let’s look at how I was oriented going into the conversation about my future:

  • I was subject to the ambiguity effect, which is the tendency to avoid options for which missing information makes the probability seem “unknown.”  I had spent little time exploring options beyond journalism and certainly not business or law – which means I tended to view them as unknowns to avoid.
  • As a fledgling journalist, I was unconsciously primed to continue down the road to more journalism education.  The anchoring effect –  the tendency we have to compare and contrast only a limited set of items – meant I was fixated on a journalism education rather than coming at a fresh set of options.
  • Further, already having made a commitment to journalism, I was subject to the commitment heuristic, the tendency to believe that a behavior is correct to the extent that it is consistent with a prior commitment we have made. I was a nescient journalist and why would I now foolishly leave the path to which I had already committed?
  • Also, graduate studies in journalism was my default option, the easiest path given that I already was studying journalism and that was where my momentum was taking me.
  • And, in fact, having committed a great deal of time, energy and money to my undergraduate journalism studies, I was hooked by the sunk-cost fallacy, which is the tendency to persist in achieving a goal due to already committed investment, whether or not the future prognosis is good. If I explored other avenues I would be denying the validity of my previous decision.

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So how could a few words from my managing editor change my future so drastically?

  • For me as a journalist, Emmett Dedmon was an icon in the profession as well as my boss. I viewed him as an authority. Many experiments such the Milgram obedience studies have shown that people will tend to let someone they see as a greater authority direct their decision making. I was ready to be persuaded by Dedmon and go down the path he prescribed. In fact, by doing so, I was even fulfilling his wishes.
  • Dedmon’s pre-emminent position and status as a war hero affected me. I was pulled to consider his suggestion in part because of the halo effect, which is the tendency to see another person’s positive traits as indicative of the nature of their other traits.  Whether Dedmon really had analyzed the options for me was not a question in my mind: He was a winner.
  • As well, Dedmon was very well liked by the newspaper staff.  This added liking as a factor in my suggestibility, as people are more likely to be persuaded or influenced by people they like.
  • Of course, there were many possible avenues for me to consider.  By positing my better future as either law or business, I was (willingly) sucked into the exclusive alternatives trap, as seeing my choice as a simple either-or analysis rather than something much more complex.
  • Related is reframing, which is restructuring the way information is presented to enable a different point of view or behavior and to help counter loss aversion. By suggesting law or business, Dedmon reframed my situation and made it easier for me to consider another path.

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In retrospect, there was some risk for me taking Dedmon’s direction because it could have been ill-founded.

  • First, the expert problem easily could have been at work. Extensive research shows that people assumed to be experts in their field typically do no better – or even worse – than non-experts in forecasting what will happen (except for those dealing with science and physical processes). His forecast that law or business would give me better results may not have been the result of any greater insight than I had.
  • As is the case for many experts, he could have been ensnared by the overconfidence effect and had excessive confidence in his view of the best future for me.
  • Dedmon could have fallen prey to assuming the future will be like what he had seen the past, the forever changeless trap in which we think of the current condition as being the same forever, which led him to the idea of recommending law or business for me.
  • Because of past belief in his view he could have been overcommitted to it, demonstrating an irrational persistence of commitment to something he had long advocated, even if evidence no longer supported it.
  • In recommending law or business based on the experience of several other journalists, Dedmon may have been guilty of biased generalizing, which is drawing a conclusion from a biased or insufficient sample.  He may have overestimated the strength of his argument that law or business was the best course based on that unrepresentative sample.
  • Also, Dedmon could have been inappropriately swayed to recommend I pursue law or business by the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, which is seeing a result and mistakenly attributing it to an action. Dedmon could have had friends or proteges with journalism degrees who pursued law or business and then achieved great success. However, their success in law or business may have had nothing to do with having a journalism undergraduate education. (The story around the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is that a sharpshooter proposed that he could hit three unseen targets on the side of his far away barn. Indeed, he aimed his rifle and sqeezed off three shots, and then left to inspect the result. When the witnesses arrived after him, they saw three circles painted on the barn with a bullet hole at the center of each. They concluded that each of the sharpshooter’s three shots had hit a target.  What they did not know is that when the sharpshooter arrived at his barn ahead of them, he painted a circle around each bullet hole.  The result they saw from the shots was not attributable to the sharpshooter’s aim. They saw what they wanted to see and what the sharpshooter wanted them to see.)
  • Likewise, in making his recommendation Dedmon may have been underestimating the importance of luck. Studies show that we too often underestimate the importance of luck in the outcomes of our decisions.  Dedmon may have been observing a great deal of good luck in the lives of the people who found great success in pairing a journalism degree with law or business.

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What looked like a simple exchange about my future in fact was a complex and unacknowleged process shaped by mental flaws, biases, errors and fallacies.

Whether I received great input and made the best decision might be questioned. What is unquestionable is that greater understanding of the psychological, perception, logic and social factors that shape decision making and conscious assessment of these factors in my decision making process would have helped assure that my decision was the best possible.