4 biases to avoid in career decisions

Over the last couple of decades, a large and growing body of research has emerged which shows that our decisions are far from rational.1 We did a survey of this research to find out what it means for your career decisions.

It turns out that we likely don’t know as much as we think we do, are overconfident, tend to think too narrowly and continue with paths that are no longer best for us. We need to be more sceptical of our decisions than we might be inclined to be; find ways to broaden our options; and take a more systematic and evidence-based approach to career choice.

In what follows, we summarise the main sources of irrational bias and outline what you can do about them.

1. Thinking narrowly

We often think too narrowly when considering what options are available to us, and what’s important in comparing them.

What’s the evidence for this?

There’s evidence that in decision making, we “narrow frame” in two ways: first, we think too narrowly about what options are available to us. Second, we think too narrowly about what our objectives are in comparing those options.2 This is supported both by direct studies, and by the existence of more general biases: the availability heuristic, causing us to focus on options that are readily available; anchoring, a tendency to overweight the first piece of information given; status quo bias, an irrational preference for the current state of affairs, and the sunk cost fallacy, the tendency to assign more weight to options we’ve already invested time and effort into.

Why is it a problem for careers?

If people consistently fail to think through all the opportunities available to them, it seems likely that many people could be in better-suited and higher impact careers than they are currently.

As explained above, it’s not just about missing options: it’s about how you compare them. If you neglect an important consideration when comparing options, you might end up favouring the wrong one for the wrong reasons. There’s risk of a compound effect here: by first thinking too narrowly about what options are available to you, and then on top of this thinking too narrowly about how to evaluate this already limited set of options, your chances of choosing a sub-optimal career are greatly increased.

What can you do about it?

Take some time to broaden your horizons. Use frameworks to brainstorm new options, such as those suggested on our how to choose page. Widen your perspective by talking to and comparing options with other people: the more diverse the range of people you consult, the better. As well as thinking through the pros of each of your options, think too about why they might not be so great: what are some reasons you might be wrong about this option?

2. Getting stuck

We often continue on paths or in careers for too long when it would actually be more beneficial to change.

What’s the evidence for this?

A bias known as the sunk cost fallacy: a tendency to continue doing something that’s no longer beneficial simply because we’ve already invested a lot of time or money in it.3 This is irrational because the time or money is already spent, and therefore irrelevant to the decision you’re now making: they are sunk costs.

Why is it a problem for careers?

Suppose you’ve spent years working and studying to get a dream job, only to realise you could be doing something completely different that would have much more impact. The thought of abandoning all those years’ effort is hard, right? It’s tempting to continue with what you’ve already invested in, hoping things will improve. But you can’t get back the years you’ve already spent, and by continuing you’re probably just wasting more. Abandoning sunk costs in your career can be incredibly difficult, but it’s important if you want to make as much difference as possible. You need to be able to identify when your preference for a certain career is for a good reason, and when it’s just because of past commitments.

What can you do about it?

The bad news is that it doesn’t seem like simply knowing about the sunk cost fallacy, thinking hard about it, or talking it over with people, will help very much. The good news, though, is that sunk costs can be fought if you try hard enough and think about your decisions in the right way:

  • Ignore the past: think about where you are now, the qualifications and experience you have, as if they just appeared from nowhere.

  • Think about the future: make a list of the pros and cons of each of your alternatives from now on.

  • Justify your decision to someone else: it’s much harder to justify biased decisions to someone else!

3. Misjudging our chances

We’re likely to misjudge our chances of success in different career paths.

What’s the evidence for this?

When judging our chances of success, we tend to use something called the representativeness heuristic: asking “how much do I seem like the sort of person who would be successful in this field?” The problem with this approach is that, no matter how much you look like the kind of person who would be successful, if the chances of anyone succeeding in your field are low, you’ll likely be overestimating your chances. This is known as base rate neglect: neglecting to consider the underlying probabilities or base rates. No matter how much you seem like the sort of person who would single-handedly find a cure for cancer, your chances of doing so are small simply because the chances of anyone doing so are so small.

There’s also evidence from studies that we tend to be overconfident in general: most people think they’re better than average, and underestimate the time it will take them to complete a given task.

Why is it a problem for careers?

Being successful in whatever you do is obviously crucial to making an impact. The existence of base rate neglect plus overconfidence suggest that we’re likely to overestimate our chances of finding a cure for malaria, becoming head of the world’s most cost-effective charity, or completely revolutionising academic incentives, to give a few examples. But this doesn’t mean that no-one should do these things.4 What we need is to be able to accurately judge our chances of success: aiming high, but not too high.

What can you do about it?

The suggested approach should help you judge your chances of success in a given field or career:

  1. Work out which factors (personality traits, skills and abilities) are most relevant to success in the field you’re considering.
  2. Find ways to objectively measure yourself on these factors.
  3. Given this information, narrow down your reference class to those similar to you.
  4. Get your “base rate” from this class.

For more detail on how to do this, see an earlier post on how to judge your chances of success.

4. Relying too much on your gut

Although conventional wisdom emphasises the importance of “going with your gut” in career decisions, we should be sceptical of at least some of our intuitive judgements. We go into more detail here.

What can you do about it?

Double-check your intuitions against more systematic methods and get more evidence. You might, for example, try explicitly listing all the factors that are important for your decision, and then attempt to score different options on these factors and compare them. Even if you don’t necessarily use this to determine your decision, it will likely highlight some factors that your first impressions miss, and flag the areas where you need to get more information.

Notes and references

  1. For instance, see the following reviews of the literature:
    Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (1974) Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Science, New Series, Vol. 185, No. 4157, pp. 1124-1131;
    Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (2011); and
    Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely (2009).

  2. Richard P. Larrick, “Broaden the decision frame to make effective decisions” in Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behaviour: Indispensable Knowledge for Evidence-Based Management, (2009) edited by Edwin A. Locke, Second Edition, Wiley

  3. Hal R. Arkes and Catherine Blumer (1985), The Psychology of Sunk Cost, Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes 35, pp. 124-140

  4. Plus there’s evidence that overconfidence, and optimism bias in general, can have its benefits: being overconfident might actually increase our chances of success by causing us to take risks and work harder. How much optimism is optimal? We’re unsure, but it’s likely to be better to be overconfident rather than underconfident.