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Why Your Brain Might Not Be the Best Decision-Maker

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“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.” - Emo Philips


We're only human. And as humans we're susceptible to faulty thinking that can derail a project, program, or process at any stage of the game. And no, you are not too smart to fall prey to it and neither am I. In fact, the smarter you are, the better you are at fooling yourself. There's an entire field of study around cognitive biases and the bad news is that they seem to be hard-wired into the human brain. It can be very, VERY, hard to avoid them but awareness, as they say, is the first step.

Here's a few I've seen (and been guilty of) in my nonprofit career:

Bandwagon Effect

You're in a meeting tasked with making a decision. Going in you had a pretty good idea of what you think should happen but then someone makes a case for the opposite and you see some heads nod. You decide that it must be what the group wants so you go along to keep the peace and move things forward. There's no further conversation and assumptions go unchallenged. Congratulations, you just jumped on the bandwagon. You have no way of knowing if the majority felt the way you did but also jumped on the bandwagon. Now you just can't be sure that this decision was actually the best one. (This one is related to groupthink.)

Confirmation Bias

This one is really hard to avoid – we're all guilty. We pay much more attention and lend credibility to information, news, research, etc. that supports what we already think. On the flip side, we find it pretty easy to dismiss anything that challenges our preconceived notions. This has obvious implications when it comes to our ability to make informed decisions.

Curse of Knowledge

When you know something others don't, it can be very hard to see things from their perspective and convey information in way they will understand. (Ever play charades?) This can be a big problem if those people are your constituents. I once worked with a social services agency to refresh their website. They have lots of great programs with titles and acronyms that only make sense to insiders. Their purpose for the site was to inform and engage people who needed their services. The problem is, these folks generally only knew about their own particular challenges, not the wider field of knowledge on the issue. For them to be able to navigate the site to find the specific resource they need, it had to be written in plain language. No page headers or site navigation with an acronym or jargon! I got a lot of push back from the staff at first – they thought it was unprofessional – but once they started hearing from their clients about how user-friendly the site was, all concerns evaporated.

Framing Effect

A staff member proposes a new fundraising initiative but the director dismisses it as unrealistic, expensive, or, you know, because [reasons]. Then six months later a consultant comes in and proposes, with fanfare, the exact same initiative and it's declared brilliant and immediately put into action. A person who is swayed either negatively or positively by how an idea is presented or who it is coming from, is not judging ideas on their merit but on superficial qualities. If your supervisor is a sucker for this one, get someone they respect to put forward your idea. Sometimes it's more important to get it done than to get the credit.

Identifiable Victim Effect

If you are a fundraiser, you use this one whether you realize it or not. Remember that annual appeal you did? The one that profiles one of your beneficiaries? It has a great photo and tells this person's moving story of desperation and eventual success (thanks to your organization, of course). Well, the fact is, you're expecting your donors to fall for the identifiable victim effect. You are literally banking on it. I'm not saying this is a bad thing to do, though. People respond much more to a story about one person than they do to information about larger groups. We may love to hate Joseph Stalin but he was right about humanity when he said, "One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic." 

Money Illusion

When we're working on our budgets, we spend a lot of time thinking about how much things cost. But when we don't take into account the value we receive vs. the number of dollars spent, we're getting fooled by the money illusion. The cheapest choice may not actually be the least expensive or best value in the long term. Red Adair said it best, "If you think hiring a professional is expensive, wait until you hire an amateur." Sure, he was putting out oil well fires which is probably not a job for an amateur, but you get the idea. How many times have you gone with the least expensive option only to end up either 1) spending more than you planned because you had to keep adding on more services/options, or 2) the task was done so poorly that you had to hire someone to fix it?

Planning Fallacy

You've got to write a grant proposal but it's not a major one and it might take a day or two to pull together. You give yourself permission to wait until a week before deadline to get started on it - you'll bang it out in no time. But then it's taking forever to get some stats from the program staff and there's a problem with the budget numbers not adding up correctly. Next thing you know, the deadline is looming and your supervisor is annoyed that she has to rush the draft review. In the next scene, you're sprinting down the street at 4:55 p.m., proposal in hand, promising your first-born to the devil if you can get it delivered before the foundation office closes. Gah! Why do we keep doing this to ourselves! Well, when we estimate how long it will take to complete a task, we humans have a tendency to base our estimate on a best case scenario, with no problems to slow things down. Not very realistic, is it?

Of course, it's always so much easier to spot a fault in other people. We forgive ourselves easily but judge others harshly and, yes, there's a name (actually two) for that – Bias Blind Spot and Fundamental Attribution Error.

For me, fundraising and communications go together like peanut butter and jelly – delicious & filling!

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