3 Simple Steps To Help You Overcome Outcome Bias

Read time —
4 Minutes
Last updated
April 8, 2024

We all curse a bad result.

And then we excuse it; “It was just a bad decision.”

We do the same when the outcome is one we want. We excel at rewarding — or punishing our ego, not for the choice we make, but for the outcome we end up with.

Why do we do this?

When we make a decision, we have control.

Outcomes though, are different. They are prone to influences you don’t have control over. Other people's choices, and entropy — along with all the randomness and uncertainty it generates create outcomes we don’t always want.

To make ourselves comfortable with what we can’t control — and what we can, we gloss over it. Or rather a cognitive bias called outcome bias does. It’s an attempt to airbrush history into one where we deny the reality of what we don’t control.

Unfortunately, this ‘airbrushing’ also denies us an objective assessment of something we do control.

Our decisions.

Knowing this creates a problem. How do we ensure we are making good decisions, and not let outcome bias blind us?

In truth, our biases will do what they do. But what you can do is ensure your approach to decision-making is as robust as it can be.

It begins will willpower.

This article covers:

The Importance of Your Willpower Reservoir

Your mind has a limited amount of mental energy to make decisions.

Most of your choices aren’t conscious ones. They are intuitive ones, and even though you don’t consciously think about them, they still drain you of mental energy.

Compounding this, are the conscious decisions you make.

Today, you will make more conscious decisions than your parents — and even their parents.

Even worse, most of them are insignificant.

Consider:

  • What to watch on TikTok
  • What to watch on TV
  • What to wear
  • What to eat

None of these are life-changing, but each one drains your willpower reservoir — and that’s bad.

When you’re low on mental energy, you take shortcuts when deciding. The quality of your choices drops and it’s then you're likely to make the following errors:

  1. You accept second-hand information
  2. You don’t question assumptions
  3. You don’t consider the effects
  4. You forget your goals

In simple terms, you get sloppy.

We lack the awareness to see this happening. Reflecting may bring some visibility, but frequently, our biases spoil this. Our lack of willpower fuels the cover-up outcome bias applies.

It happens so often, that professional decision-maker Annie Duke can say this:

“I’m willing to bet that your best decision preceded a good result and the worst decision preceded a bad result.”

You won’t ever escape the way our biases influence our thinking.

But, you can soften its impact by reducing the number of decisions you have to make. Which in turn helps you pay attention to the way you decide.

Here’s how.

Step 1: Reduce Your Decisions

With limited willpower, you should look to reduce the volume of decisions you’re making.

You can:

  • Set rules
  • Batch decisions
  • Simplify your choices

I did this.

I set rules for waking up and starting my day with exercise. There is no internal debate about when I get up now because we’re conditioned not to break rules.

We decide on meals for the week ahead on the Friday before. This does two things. One, we tend to eat healthier — and two, it stops us from deciding on the day, which lets other factors — like time — drive our eating decisions.

We’ve all seen Mark Zuckerberg & Steve Jobs have simple clothing choices. David Beckham — who has to wear different outfits — chooses them a week at a time. The approach is to either simplify what you wear or simplify the time it takes to choose.

Whatever it be, the desire is the same — to reduce the number of unimportant decisions to a minimum. The upside is more willpower to make important decisions.

Step 2: Focus on How You Decide

One of the great traps of decision-making lies in thinking about the what, rather than the how.

When we think about what we are deciding, we open the door to factors that don’t help us to make good decisions.

We let other factors like tribal reasoning or holding onto a principle guide us. It means we stop asking questions.

Let me give you an example.

A friend had a son who’s girlfriend she didn’t like. The girlfriend pushed back, which put the son in a difficult place.

Determined to stop her son from seeing this girl, my friend stood firm. Arguments flared, which upset my friend. But she wouldn't give in.

Her principle — the what — took precedence over thinking about how she could help her son see sense.

Her only focus was an outcome where the son and girlfriend separated. When encouraged to be more rational and calm, she couldn't get past her principles.

My point here is this; focusing on how to achieve something forces us to consider our choices more. When the goal is what we are deciding, those considerations get forgotten.

Step 3: Only Make Good Decisions

A good decision is one that follows a good process.

By reducing your decisions, you give yourself more mental energy to make the choices that matter. You only want to make good decisions. When you have a greater pool of willpower, you give yourself the capacity to focus on making good decisions.

You create options for yourself.

That’s the other upside to this process. Not only do you limit the sway outcome bias will bring, but you also start to see decisions as a continuous chain.

Outcomes have consequences. And, regardless of whether they are negative or positive, they will create new decisions for you to make.

Bake optionality into your current decisions, as it will make future choices easier.

Takeaways

It’s easy to let outcome bias define the quality of your decisions. I find myself uttering those words when I shouldn’t be.

Most judgements come from the outcome, not the decision.

What you need to do is work on being a more conscious decision-maker.

This means:

  1. Reducing your decisions
  2. Focusing on how you decide, not what you decide.
  3. Double down on only making good decisions to remove the doubt.

So, I encourage you to start work on implementing these three steps.

It is amazing how your decision quality starts to go up as you become more conscious about the way you decide.

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