Common decision-making errors

Walking direction on asphalt.

In our last blog post, ‘Think like a Scientist!’, we outlined the benefits of adopting a sceptical approach to challenge myths, fads and fashions at work. Now we’re exploring some of the most common decision-making traps we all fall in to, along with some suggestions for how to avoid them.

Here’s the bad news: we don’t always make good decisions! We frequently rely on gut feel, choosing options we personally prefer or rely on faulty logic. And whilst we don’t set out to make poor decisions, it’s a function of how our brains operate, along with what else is going on in our environment. Every one of us has ‘cognitive biases’ which impact how we process information and make decisions, some of which we summarise below:

 We fail to deal with ‘information overload’?

Every day we’re bombarded with new information and making sense of it all can be challenging. To help process all this data and information we rely on mental short-cuts and a selective focus. These usually serve us well, so we can give our limited attention to the most important information and activities. However, even with these tricks up our mental sleeve, we can be overwhelmed by information and options. Confirmation bias occurs when we place more emphasis on the information that supports our own views, disregarding contradictory evidence. For example, we might have a very positive opinion of an employee, rating them positively and ignoring their performance issues as ‘occasional slip ups’.

We draw inaccurate conclusions – correlation does not equal causation!

As humans, we like the satisfaction of deriving meaning from information, even if that means we have to creatively fill in some blanks. One example of this is false causation, where we mistakenly believe one thing causes another, when in fact we don’t have any evidence for this – merely that the two things exist together. So, for example if you had data which correlated employee satisfaction with performance, you might be tempted to claim that more satisfied employees perform better. But not necessarily, it could equally be true that employees who receive higher performance ratings report being more satisfied (wouldn’t you?). So beware of claims based on correlational data!

We make decisions under time pressure – doing something, is better than doing nothing. Right?

A common trap that we can fall into when making decisions under pressure is to feel more comfortable taking some form of action over no action at all. Even when we’re unsure what we’re about to do will work. This is (unsurprisingly) called action bias and, as you might imagine, can lead to disruption and wasted time and resources.

How to deal with these biases?

We can improve the quality of our decision-making by:

  • Seeking input from colleagues, especially someone willing to be a ‘devil’s advocate’ who will make you explain your rationale to them.
  • Exploring possible alternative meanings of data, before making up your mind.
  • Pausing before action when decisions are made under time pressure.
  • Questioning whether a decision needs to be made immediately or even at all.
  • Focusing on the problem to be solved, not the selection of options that are immediately obvious.


We’ve developed a series of workshops called Pathway, to help you and your team overcome thinking errors and use evidence and data to make more effective decisions. To find out more visit: or contact –

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