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Doubt Avoidance Bias

Doubt Avoidance Bias

Dr Jeff Stoker

Our minds are programmed to do things quickly because it’s a basic survival mechanism that we act immediately if we are threatened, and often in times of stress, we act so quickly that it’s almost an unconscious response that occurs to limit any unnecessary delay. Doubt and hesitation are not good things when we are in danger when self-preservation is high on the list of priorities we need to think quickly and this is the origin of a cognitive bias called the Doubt Avoidance Bias.

Our self-preservation instincts mean we are hard-wired to avoid doubt, the doubt avoidance bias is preprogrammed in our brains, it affects our decision making much more when we are stressed and when we are put under pressure because it is at these times that our decision making becomes even quicker and more instinctive. The trouble is that our decisions that are affected by doubt avoidance bias can be rushed, can be habitual, based on emotion, and are made to avoid doubt rather than an analysis of the facts.

When we are outside of our comfort zones, stressed, threatened, or when emotions are charged we are at the mercy of doubt avoidance bias. It’s almost like this bias turns up the dial for us to make quicker and quicker decisions and avoid doubt when our backs are against the wall.

There will be times when doubt avoidance bias takes over no matter what we do and this is why prior training in high-stress situations, makes your decision making more effective. When you are really stressed ingrained behaviours, experience, and training kicks in and the quality of your response is typically dependent on these success factors.

I’ve done this type of training in Advanced Trauma and Life Support exercises running high-stress scenarios and simulations with actors posing as patients so that you learn to make the right decisions in real life and death clinical situations when the stakes can’t be higher.

The military and police do weapon drills and live-fire exercises, pilots spend time in simulators running through all eventualities that need correct decisions to be made quickly. When the training is there it kicks in when the doubt avoidance bias takes effect and when the stakes are high you know what to do without even thinking and you just do what you need to do. For me I still have vivid memories of intubating patients, putting in ET. Tubes, chest drains, and central lines, in times when success and failure meant life and death. It was at these times that I responded instinctively and just did what needed to be done as doubt avoidance bias made me react and I relied on training, practised technique, and memorised protocols.

Yet outside of life and death situations, we can still feel the effect of doubt avoidance bias, and often as is usually the case we don’t appreciate the effect it is having on our decisions. Yet in reality short of a life and death situation there’s is nothing wrong with a little bit of doubt. Most of the time in life we do have the time, we can slow down, and we can stop ourselves being too rash in the decisions we make.

Doubt avoidance bias is also one of the reasons why we can get into the habit of making the same old mistakes again and again, and without effective training, in high-stress situations, we tend to go back to previous practice behaviours and responses, instinctively we often just what we have done before and that is not always the right thing to do.

If you feel that you don’t make good decisions under pressure it’s time you looked at those decisions again and worked out how you could respond differently, then run visualisations of doing things right, play out a good response and in doing so you can train yourself to react differently when in that situation again because if you don’t put in the effort to do this you’re likely to just repeat the same old mistakes again and again.

Doubt can almost be painful it is such un-instinctual thing, doubt just doesn’t feel right, but instead, I’d say cherish those times look for them, doubt has probably just stopped you making a bad decision, doubt shows cognitive awareness, it means you need to think about something, and doubt allows for your rational mind to kick in and for you to take stock of the situation and make better choices.

Sometimes we need to question why we are doing things, we need to stop doing the same old ways, doing those things that keep getting us into trouble and instead start doing what’s right instead.

You can often put things off and create some space to think rather than rushing in with poor decisions, then if that decision can wait you can also research that topic, give yourself some time, and often you will see other options that you would never have considered without the pause.

Your goal should always be to make the right decision and to do the right thing rather than react inappropriately just to avoid doubt, doubt avoidance bias gives us a false sense of confidence, it can send us headlong into making the wrong choices.

A lot of our Cognitive DeBiasing work helps people to be conscious of ways that their thinking is being distorted, fundamentally this allows them to reconsider the decisions they are about to make, or to understand and prevent recurrent thinking patterns that are causing poor behaviours in their lives. Think of it like this if you learn how to think better you can build or install much more effective mental circuits in your brain, you can see new choices of action, and you can do the right thing rather than relying on old patterns of behaviour.

Your destiny is self-determined by the decisions you make but if you don’t watch out your destiny can also be pre-determined by you instinctively making those poor mistakes again and again.

Doubt avoidance bias is a powerful cognitive bias and a great one to write a short article about, it kicks in when the stakes are high, it’s instinctive, it can bypass conscious thought, yet when the steaks are high and especially when you’re in situations of high-stress making the right decision is of the highest importance, because it is at these times when often a wrong decision can create the most result.

There are a number of important things you need to do to mitigate against doubt avoidance bias, and we’ve already touched on a few already; practice, experience, and training are essential to almost everything you do in life. Positive visualisation helps by rehearsing better patterns of thinking and behaviour that are ready when needed. In addition just bringing a little stress, change and unknown into your life takes will always take you just a little outside your comfort zone which is a great place to be to keep you mentally alert and to keep you on your toes be it mentally rather than getting stuck in old patterns.

Reflective practice is the key to preventing poor responses happening again, we can consciously pre-program choices and responses with training that are more desirable rather than relying on the fate or automatic poor responses you’ve done before.

Doubt avoidance bias happens without us knowing, the pressure takes over and we react even in times when we don’t even need to, get yourself ready for what you need to do, prepare what you’re going to do, and if in doubt and you don’t really need to make a decision then why not sleep on it.

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About the author

Clinician, writer, educator, speaker, and problem expert. Helping people to think better, to solve problems, and get their lives unstuck.

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