Updated: Apr 27
A few months ago I decided to look into different options on where to study economic or business psychology. I mainly concentrated on distance learning options provided by German universities and - to be honest - I made my choice quite quickly and didn't do any in-depth investigation on whether it was the best option or not.
It took me about 2 months to assemble all the documents and information it required to make my final decision and because I really wanted to get going I dismissed a couple of warning signs that showed up along the process. I don't want to go too much into the details of what went wrong since then but here I am, on the verge of spending 11.000 EUR out of my own pocket, reflecting on my decisions made in the past couple of months.
I want to share with you some of my observations and reflections regarding how I think my brain tricked me into making certain decisions. Let's begin with something called the "What you see is all there is" effect or "WYSIATI" - not really a handy abbreviation but the originator used it so I might use it as well. This effect has been thoroughly studied by the psychologist, economist and Nobel Price winner in Economic Sciences, Daniel Kahneman. In the following I will refer to a couple of passages from his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow".
In his book, Kahneman covers a number of experiments which point out the differences between two thought systems (System 1: the fast, automatic one; System 2: the slow, more conceptual and logical one) and how they arrive at different results even given the same inputs. Terms and concepts include coherence, attention, laziness, association, jumping to conclusions, WYSIATI, and how one forms judgements.
I am a big fan of System 1 - I think it has quite a big influence on what I do and how I behave and I have been doing quite well with that. But, as for most of us, sometimes it's playing tricks on you and it would be better to activate your System 2 in these situations to avoid taking wrong turns.
Let's get back to my case: in hindsight I am quite sure that I have made a decision based on the WYSIATI effect by not thoroughly investigating other options on where to study, e.g. by searching for options in the EU or even different options in Germany. A quick glance at the top three distance learning universities and a bit of buzz marketing convinced me that I'd be about to make the best choice possible. Well, in some way I did - at least based on the fact that there was nothing else remotely comparable, my "gut feeling" and the need to make a fast decision.
If we make mundane day-to-day decisions, we usually don't tell ourselves "well, there is a lot we don't know about this...". Let me give you an example: we usually form an impression of people within less than a second of meeting them. We decide whether they're friendly, hostile or dominant, and whether we're going to like them. And clearly, we form that impression with inadequate information, just based on their facial features or movements. We don't wait for more information, we form impressions on the basis of what is available to us.
And here's the catch: if I'd want to practice to tell myself more often that there is more information available and that I'd rather not make a fast decision, I wouldn't get too far. Confidence is a feeling, not a judgement. This feeling comes automatically because it is a product of System 1.
It also highly depends on the situation we're in. If we are in a professional context and the stakes are high, chances are higher that our System 2 is more active and we make better decisions, think harder about them, etc. But if we are with friends or family, we tend to make fast and non-logical judgements - and sometimes we realize afterwards that the rash judgement or the confident statement was wrong and misplaced. We'd still make those judgements and statements. That's WYSIATI in action. We don't see what's not good or true about it in the very moment because it's our subconscious System 1 acting.
The second problem I faced after making the decision on where I'd want to study is the so called "confirmation-bias". This bias made it impossible for me to see the clear signals that pointed at the downsides of the institution I was about to chose. In short, confirmation bias means that we tend to only pick up information based on a decision we have made or a direction we are about to take. Within WYSIATI, we will usually be quick to seize on limited evidence that confirms an existing perspective. We ignore or fail to seek evidence that runs contrary to the coherent story that's already been created in our mind.
One could think that all hope is lost, but there are ways of making sure that the WYSIATI and confirmation bias won't dominate your decision making in case there's something important on the line.
The approach I am going to take is that first of all I have to be more careful about making decisions in fields that I am clearly lacking expertise. Having a list of important topics that I have a poor understanding of or made bad decisions in the past should help me to avoid making fast and unsound decisions in the future.
The second approach is to have a sounding board for decisions. I used to install sounding boards during my professional career for every project and sometimes even for every work stream within a project to make sure that a small group of experts shares it's opinion and provides guidance toward taking the best and most effective next steps. I am blessed to have access to a group of the most critical and intelligent minds at almost any time so it would be foolish to not consult them further in making better choices in the future.
I used to be quite hesitant about asking family, friends or colleagues for advice regarding private topics but now I see that I'd be much better off taking a step back whenever possible. I will try and stop relying too much on my own intuition if the stakes are high and I get the option to hold myself back, especially when I know that I am not an expert in a specific field.
One last thing: “A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat cost $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” - sometimes it's just better to stop and think.
If you're interested in more high quality and easy-to-understand content regarding how our brain works, here's a link to Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/2yqLmwF)