So, clearly there are a few problems with experience and the lessons we supposedly learn. This is important because many educational programs are centered around experiential learning, as well as constructivist learning strategies, which build on not just one person’s experience, but others as well. They encourage the individual to frame concepts, context, and even emotions through experience – which may or may not be a good idea.
Let’s take a closer look at experience and “learning from experience” and decision-making. The May 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review featured a very interesting article entitled “Fooled by Experience.” Authored by professors Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth, it goes into some of the ways in which experience-based decision-making can lead us astray.
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1. Cognitive filters distort our perception.Whether we realize it or not, our decision-making and meaning-making processes are filled with bias. The key is to realize when and where bias is clouding our thinking, especially as it has to do with “if-then” statements and causal chains.
Antidote: Put your thought process on paper. Look at the “if-then” statements and the causal chains, and then list the underlying assumptions. Your invisible biases will become visible.
2. We look at the outcome, not the inputs. It’s all too easy to look at the outcome as the end-all, be-all of the situation or the decision. In reality, each decision often has mini-decision points along the way, and there are many opportunities to modify, mediate, and change direction.
Antidote: Study failures as well as successes.
3. We surround ourselves with yes-sayers. Our trusted circle of friends can be a nice security blanket, but if we’re not careful, the blanket will create a comfort zone we’ll never have courage to leave. Sometimes getting outside our comfort zone is extremely important, and we need to find people who will challenge our assumptions. We need to assume risk, and the determine just how intense the risk is.
Antidote: Seek outside opinions.
4. Thinking “my experience matters; yours does not.” If we paid the price for our decisions, it’s easy to say that our experience matters more than the person who did not have such a painful experience. However, what others say and experienced can help. A great example is TripAdvisor. Just because one person found a 2-inch cockroach (“water bug”?) in the bathroom does not mean that everyone did. And, one person may have found the staff surly, while others found them charming. At the end of the day, one has to sort out all the opinions. However, when it’s said and done, if you visit the resort and you go back and read the opinions, you’re still likely to filter all that you read through your own experience. So, you may never be able to eliminate bias, but you can at least realize that you’re doing so.
Antidote: Look for disconfirming evidence. Recognize that it takes 5 times the evidence to disconfirm a deeply negative bias than one that confirms positive bias.
5. I remember everything (that’s good, that is). We have very selective memories. Some of us tend to purge the bad experiences and only remember the good ones. Others tend to hang onto the bad experiences. Many times our memories and the way we filter / sort / assign memories has to do with how we want to perceive reality and also how we want to shelter ourselves from hurt and pain. So, do we privilege fantasy (remember only the good)? Or, do we cling to the bad things, the doom and gloom, and protect ourselves from deception and disappointment? We need to untangle how and why we filter our memories and recognize just how it can shape future decision-making.
Being hesitant to do things that hurt us in the past seems to make good sense. However, let’s take a broader view. What are we avoiding? How are we limiting ourselves, our possibilities, and our ability to experience life?
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To avoid the trap of having an ever-shrinking list of possibilities and options, we need to recognize that sometimes our negative experiences are triggers to change our scope of thinking. First and foremost, it means that it’s time to find new ways to see ourselves, which often requires us to seek fresh perspectives, divergent points of view, and new experts.
The next step, after we’ve found the new voices and minds, is to actually listen. Then, after listing, start storyboarding what the new directions would look like.
- Step 1: Find new viewpoints.
- Step 2: Listen to the views.
- Step 3: Storyboard a new set of decisions.
- Step 4: Engage in simulation or role-play about what the new decisions (in which you go into areas where you had bad outcomes in the past) could mean
- Step 5: Identify points in the process where you can change direction when you need to.
Finally, with any luck at all, if we make a good-faith effort to recognize when and where we’re introducing bias when we review our own experiences and we use experience for making decisions, we stop limiting ourselves. Each cognitive filter has a specific potential antidote as well, and if we are vigilant about dissecting our cognitive processes, we free ourselves to exercise more options in the future.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Soll, J., Milkman, K., and Payne, J. W. (2015) Outsmart your own biases. Harvard Business Review. May 2015, 65-71.
Soyer, E. and Hogarth, R. (2015) Fooled by experience. Harvard Business Review. May 2015, 72-77.
Sull, D., Homkes, R., Sull, C. (2015) Why strategy execution unravels – and what to do about it. Harvard Business Review. March 2015, 58-66.
Thomas, M., and Tsai, C. I. (2012) Psychological distance and subjective experience: How distancing reducing the feeling of difficulty. Journal of Consumer Research. Vol 39, August 2012, 324-340.
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