How Your Mind Deceives You in Decision Making
All humans suffer from “perception deception”. Here’s what to do about it.
My colleague Lee and I were walking back to our office from a technical meeting with a well-respected engineering team.
I was feeling good about our meeting – upbeat and positive. I noted, “They are pretty smart.”
Lee replied, “They aren’t that smart, they just agreed with you.”
This incident reminded me of a quote from The Heart of Buddha Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh
“Where there is perception there is deception.”
What does that mean?
The human mind is a wondrous and complex system, navigating through life using a mix of experiences, emotions, and cognitive processes to understand the world around you.
One of these processes is perception.
Perception is the process of using sensory information to understand our environment. This involves filtering, selecting, organizing, and interpreting sensory input.
So why is perception critical?
Because your decisions, actions, and results are primarily based on how you perceive situations, events, or other individuals.
But there’s a catch.
Your perception isn’t fully accurate.
It’s tainted by your past experiences, worldview, mindset, and frame of reference.
This is where the “deception” part comes in.
Deception is the act of intentionally misleading or tricking someone.
When we are deceived, we are given false and incomplete information that does not correspond to true reality.
Sure, it’s your reality. Just understand that your reality isn’t the same as others’ reality and it’s likely that it’s not an absolute reality.
Self-deception occurs when your perceptions are distorted by your context.
And your perceptions are always distorted, because they are shaped by your past experiences, worldview, mindset, and frame of reference.
Why is this important?
Think about your last disagreement. Could the disagreement be seen as a difference in context? Was your worldview, mindset, and frame of reference simply different from the other person?
Self-awareness is key. When you are conscious of your context then you are reducing your self-deception.
If you are not aware of your worldview, mindset, and frame of reference, then self-deception is free to roam.
So, what can you do to reduce the deception in your perception?
Deception can take many forms.
Here are 3 common ones:
1. Getting stuck by perceiving limited options.
When facing challenges or decisions, many individuals often feel trapped between limited options.
This restrictive view might leave them thinking, “Should I quit, or should I endure the misery?” like the client I wrote about here: Are you stuck or do you have a decision problem?
But this binary perspective might not be the only way.
2. Letting personal biases and desires cloud our judgment.
Our personal biases and desires influence our judgment.
A common example I see in my work is when technical leaders rise to a leadership position based on their ability to perform technical work and manage projects.
One leader I coached years ago ran into problems when they began to lead a larger team.
They were puzzled by communication breakdowns, lowered morale, and increasing turnover rates. They believed that if the technical aspects were handled correctly, then everything else would fall into place.
The problems occurred because they had always prioritized results over relationships, a bias stemming from their technical background and early successes.
Our personal biases and desires can be thought of as part of our context for a decision or action. This context is your worldview, mindset, and frame of reference.
3. Following well-worn paths because we desire certainty.
We all yearn for certainty in an inherently uncertain world. Our brains naturally gravitate towards the known, the familiar, the “rules of thumb.” This can be comforting…. And deceptive.
Take one of my favorite adages that was proven true throughout my project management career: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
While detailed planning offers the promise of control and predictability, it’s not always the definitive key to success.
Life’s most pivotal decisions are made in the absence of a clear plan. The reality is the future is uncertain.
The perceived need for a solid, fail-safe plan before embarking on an important venture can be a hindrance rather than a help.
Did you have a fail-safe plan for success when you graduated from high school, picked your profession, moved to a new city, fell in love, or became a parent?
To avoid being deceived, we need to be aware of our biases and assumptions, question our perceptions, and seek out alternative perspectives and information.
By doing so, we can develop a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the world around us.
As a leadership coach, one of my jobs is to help people avoid this deception by perception.
I have several tools in my toolkit for this, but often the simplest way out is through asking questions to help them see their challenge from a different perspective:
- What other options are available to you?
- How would someone you respect handle this situation?
- If your friend had this problem, what would you advise them to do?
- What is your worldview and mindset? How is this influencing your decisions and actions?
What challenges are you facing now that might be complicated by “deception by perception”? (Hint: it’s all of them!)
Featured image used with permission from LeadershipSmarts