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How the Projection Bias Is Undermining Your Decision Making

Your crystal ball is a mirror.

Each time you ponder a decision you are attempting to predict the future. You imagine how each potential option will affect you and others and decide on the version of the future you would rather see. It may be subconscious, but you still do it - like a psychic looking into a crystal ball.

The problem is that the person we see in that future is our present self, not our future self, and those two people are not the same.

Unless your decision has only short-term impact, you will be a different person when the outcome affects you than you are now. Your experience, your knowledge and your emotional state will have changed.

So your crystal ball is a mirror - you see your current self while trying to conjure up those potential futures.

This is the projection bias at work. While the term can refer to projecting our own feelings and beliefs onto others, it more commonly refers to projecting the current you onto the future you.

Consider the well-known advice not to shop for food on an empty stomach. Why? Because the current hungry you who would really love to scarf down a pint of butter pecan ice cream is making decisions for the future you who won’t be that impaired by hunger and is trying to watch calories. The result? Tomorrow you look at that pint in your freezer and wonder, “What was I thinking?!”

Most decisions have effects that last longer than a moment but high emotional states are transitory. When you make a decision “in the moment” your current emotional state gets projected. If it is not your usual state - say you are super angry or hungry or excited or afraid - then it is not likely a good representation of the longer-term future you.

We also fail to recognize that our psychological immune system (hedonic adaptation) brings us back to a relatively stable emotional baseline. Usually, we only think about how happy or miserable we will be if a certain event happens, but we don't consider that we will be back to the same level of happiness fairly quickly. (Lottery players, take note!)

Another misjudgment is underestimating the strength of the endowment effect - we place an irrationally high value on things we own. You buy a product that has a money-back guarantee, thinking you’ll just return it if you don’t like it. But once you own it, you are more likely to want to keep it simply because it is now yours. That is why companies are happy to offer those guarantees - few people use them.

Avoiding the projection bias

1) Awareness of your current state is the first step. Where are you emotionally? Are you in your usual baseline emotional state or are you currently amped up? Are you livid? Or overjoyed? Or fearful? Or starving?

If so, you should delay any major decisions until you return to an emotional level closer to your baseline.

2) Take note of external factors that may be affecting you, like the weather, stock market, or your spouse’s mood. These can influence your decisions and if an external factor changes it could change how you will feel about your decision.

Ask yourself what pressures and influencing factors will likely affect you in the future that are not affecting you now. For example, you are buying a new car that you plan to keep for a while and you have your eye on a fun sports car. However, you plan to start a family within a few years and your priorities and goals will change. In that case, the changes are foreseeable, though often the changes are more difficult to predict.

3) Get input and feedback from someone else. We likely have biases that are affecting our perception that they don’t have, so they may be able to help us recognize and mitigate them.

Compare yourself to yourself

We don’t have a fortune-teller’s crystal ball, so we don’t know with certainty how we will change. However, we can take the extra step to think about the ways we will likely be the same or significantly different in the future. In other words, consider how close the current you is to the future you.

Better predicting makes for better decisions, and better decisions improvise your health, wealth, and happiness.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

Want to learn more about improving your decision performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions


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