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The “how did I screw this up?” bias

I love TechWell. They’re an online publication covering all stages of the software development lifecycle. Their articles are heavy on soft-skills, and I’ve found them very insightful, but they don’t seem to be too popular amongst software developers in general (based on the number of times I’ve seen them cited on HN, Reddit, Twitter, or in conversation).

Anyway, they recently posted a personal/process improvement article about various cognitive biases. I’m fascinated by these illogical tendencies in day-to-day human thinking, and I notice them a lot, in myself and in others. After reading the article, I added this comment, informally describing a “self-accountability bias” I’ve noticed.

Another debilitating cognitive tendency I strive to avoid is a form of “hasty generalization” (which is when a generalization is made about a population from a statistically insignificant sample, perhaps due to confirmation bias).

This particularly debilitating form is compounded by negativity bias. When it occurs, the “population” is the observer himself, and the sample consists of personal experiences connected to some relatively large, costly expectation or goal that is not met. The failure is compounded by the costs (both real and opportunistic) and can instigate a strong negativity bias. The generalizations are made about their own decisions, behaviors or traits. For example, when launching a startup, entrepreneurs are forced to make dozens of complex decisions with imperfect information. All of these decisions could be reasonably rational, but if the venture fails, the entrepreneur might conclude that the decisions were wrong and illogically “learn” not to repeat such decisions. Another example can spring from a failed long-term romantic relationship. Much time, energy, and consideration is put into such a relationship, and if it ultimately fails, a participant might be driven to attribute the failure to certain behaviors or traits of theirs, however illogical.

(The problem is not that individuals shouldn’t learn anything from these experiences, it’s that they tend to identify lessons that are based on unique circumstances but to hold them in broader circumstances. Identifying the useful lessons from complex failures is another matter.)

The extreme negativity of the experience can cloud their recognition of its complexity and uniqueness, and set them on a path of learning anything they can from it. These lessons can improperly deter them from goals or situations they can successfully manage. Perhaps this is the opposite extreme of hindsight bias, but the damage can be just as bad if not worse. A way to avoid this is to remind oneself of the uniqueness of the situation and that one acted in accordance with their morals, worldview, and perhaps limited knowledge of the situation; to think of times when suspect behaviors were actually beneficial to oneself; to acknowledge the variables beyond one’s control that played a role in the failure; and to reaffirm (or define) one’s morals and worldview to support a steady-handed outlook.

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