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. Here are a few traps you might fall into:
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.
What you can do instead is focus on separating what you want 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 heard the weird statistics that connect a lightning strike with eating toast for breakfast. Just because those two things both happened to you on the same day does not mean they in any way caused each other.
You might fall into this trap more when you’re rushed and don’t make time to sort out the facts from surface-level assumptions. Take the time to 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 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.
Editor’s note: Adapted from the NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook