Decision-Making Traps to Know and Avoid

By Molly Herber

Sep 20, 2017

People reading a map with mountains in the background
Photo by Rainbow Weinstock

Humans’ ability to use patterns helps us make decisions faster, but can also lead us into what NOLS teaches in our leadership curriculum as decision-making traps.

These traps make us see patterns that aren’t there, overestimate our abilities, or try to make reality conform to what we want rather than what’s likely to happen—they can be especially tricky in situations where many of the factors are random or outside of our control.

Fortunately, you can learn to recognize what these traps are.

When you know your tendencies, you can avoid the downfalls that come with making decisions based on incorrect or incomplete information. So, here are a few decision-making traps to know about and avoid:

Assuming the Outcome You Want is the Most Likely

Also known as the “It will never happen to me” trap, the positive outcome trap happens when we assume that positive outcomes are more likely than negative ones.

For example, most people vastly overestimate their chances of winning the lottery and underestimate their chances of being in a car wreck. The more positive the outcome, the more likely it appears.

With this trap, you might be tempted to ignore indicators in the moment that a bad outcome is more likely, such as overlooking changes in weather showing a storm will hit soon after you leave camp.

To counteract this trap, what you can do instead is focus on separating what you want to happen from what you observe happening, and try to make a decision based on facts rather than your feelings alone.

Believing Causation and Correlation Are the Same Thing

The tendency to believe that because two events are connected one causes the other is called illusory causation.

You might have seen some of the weird statistics that correlate unrelated things like margarine consumption and divorce. But just because the numbers of both things rise and fall in similar ways does not mean they're actually impacting each other.

You might fall into this trap more when you’re rushed and don’t make or have time to sort out facts from assumptions.

To avoid it, slow down and figure out where the causes of an outcome are actually coming from, especially when you’re making more complex decisions.

More Control=More Safety

This is called the control paradox.

It leads us to believe that risks where we have some degree of control, like driving or ice climbing, are inherently safer than risks where we have little control, like flying on an airplane. The comfort of actually having your hands on the car’s steering wheel creates a sense of security, but it doesn’t mean you’re actually any safer—you certainly can’t impact what other drivers are doing or what the road conditions are like.

For this trap, it helps to practice some self awareness and take a look at your own behavior. Do you try to take more control in situations when you feel less secure? Think about the usual outcomes when you do that—perhaps feeling like you’re micromanaging, or taking charge in an area where you’re less skilled.

Next time you’re tempted to take control, think about where that need is coming from. Then, take a look at the situation you’re in to see where your actions actually have an impact, and where you just think they do.

Feeling Like You’ve “Earned” Good Luck

This trap, called the gambler’s fallacy, leads us into believing that probability is self-correcting—that, after a string of bad luck, you’re “due” for a spectacular turnaround.

It’s the mindset that makes you believe that after a bear eats your food, it rains for a week, and you ripped your tent, something good has to happen because you’ve just had enough of the negative. In reality, these events happen whether you “earn” them or not.

You can experience this fallacy in reverse, too, when you have a string of good outcomes and then worry you’re “due” for something bad to happen.

The way to avoid fallacies like these is to recognize what your actions can impact and what they can’t. This helps you plan for what you can realistically control and avoid speculating about the future.

Identify your team’s decision-making patterns with help from NOLS Risk Services.

Sailing and decision making
Photo by Nick Hall.

Editor’s note: Adapted from the NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook

Written By

Molly Herber

Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber