Why Is It So Hard To Overcome Decision Bias?

Because we need to make sense of our world.

Posted Oct 26, 2020

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”  ― H. L. Mencken

Sense-making is a powerful human motive. Human beings have a universal desire to see order, and pattern in the world, and we find randomness and chaos undesirable (Chatera & Loewenstein, 2016). Sensemaking is most often needed when the environment is changing rapidly, presenting us with surprises for which we are unprepared (Ancona, 2012).

But making sense is not the same as being correct. For example, a suspicious person can be at the same time absolutely right in his perception and absolutely wrong in his judgment. The need for sense-making motivates poor decisions.  

1. Self-justification. We tend to quickly come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for. But all too often, we know what we did but not why. The reasons that people give when asked to explain their own behavior are rarely insightful. What they offer for their behavior are generally rationalizations (Wilson, 2011). Our emotion often drives our decisions, with conscious cognition trying to come up with rationalizations for the decision. When behaviors are controlled nonconsciously, they are not necessarily consciously accessible.  

2. Dissonance reduction. People like to have internal consistency. For example, when we lose in a contest, we come to desire the prize less because we view it as less valuable.  Cognitive dissonance results from a tension between a desire and a belief (Elster, 2007). And because dissonance is an unpleasant state, our beliefs move into line with our behavior. Cognitive dissonance is a case of detecting our own hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is a powerful motivation for finding justifications (excuses) for one’s action.

3. Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to seek out and interpret information in a manner that tends to support pre-existing views. Our brain is like a good lawyer and like a lawyer the human brain wants victory, not truth. Lawyers begin with a conclusion  and then seek evidence that supports it (Le Doux, 2019).

4. Choosing not to know. People tend to avoid information to protect themselves against having their unrealistic expectations get ruined (Hertwig & Engel, 2016). They want to keep hope alive. For example, someone who says “till death do us part” during the marriage ceremony need not be aware of the divorce statistics. However, avoiding unpleasant yet valuable information could have unintended consequences. For example, not taking a medical test may mean that a person is not treated early enough to prevent the progress of a serious disease.

5. Conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories reflect the implicit assumption that significant events must have been intended and caused by some individual or group. The theories provide some sense of control to make sense of a world that seems senseless. The primary reason for many conspiracy theories involves discomfort with uncertainty and a lack of understanding of events. Most important events are complex and have many causes (Chatera & Loewenstein, 2016). Conspiracy beliefs are a major obstacle to reasoned debate about public policy issues such as a vaccine or climate change. As Mark Twain remarked, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know, it's what we know for sure that just ain't so.”

6. The narrative bias. Another indicator of the need for sense-making is the human attraction for narrative (Taleb, 2007). This bias is associated with our tendency for pattern detection from raw truths. When an unpredicted event occurs, we immediately come up with explanatory stories that are simple and coherent. There is also an upside to storytelling. It helps us to see past events as more predictable, more expected, and less random than they actually were: “Hey, it was bound to take place and it seems futile to agonize over it.”


Ancona, Deborah (MIT-Sloan School of Management.). “SENSEMAKING Framing and Acting in the Unknown.” The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing, and Being, SAGE, 2012, pp.  3-19.

Chatera, N, Loewenstein, G. (2016) The under-appreciated drive for sense-making. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 126 (2016) 137–154.

Elster (2007), Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

Le Doux Joseph (2019) The deep history of ourselves.

Taleb, Nassim (2007), The Balck Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.   Random House.

Wilson, TD (2011) Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Little, Brown and Company.