Mitt Romney's Battle with Cognitive Bias - THINKERS Notebook

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Mitt Romney's Battle with Cognitive Bias

Mitt Romney announced an important decision last Wednesday.

You might have heard?

Romney, the senator from Utah, voted in favor of one article of impeachment. In so doing, he became the first member of a president's own party to ever vote in favor of an article of impeachment. 

Now let's be clear about something: this is not a political newsletter.

And I am not going to debate impeachment nor share my personal feelings about whether Romney was right or wrong to cast the vote that he did.

What I am interested in, and what I think any person who wants to improve their thinking will be interested in, is the thought process that Romney deliberately used to come to his decision.

Because whether you agree with his decision or not, there is one element of Romney's process that could be applied by any person hoping to improve his or her decision making.

Romney shared his process for making this particularly fraught decision on the Thursday morning edition of The Daily, the morning news podcast from The New York Times.

During their discussion, Romney and Times correspondent Mark Leibovich arrive at the subject of Romney's reputation for trying to play both sides of an issue, and how he has made politically and personally expedient decisions only to seemingly reverse course at a later date. Romney doesn't dispute this characterization. Instead, he notes how he has learned from it, and how those lessons impacted his thought process this time around.

He goes on to explain:

"I have found, in business in particular, but also in politics, that when something is in your personal best interest, the ability of the mind to rationalize that that's the right thing is really quite extraordinary.

"And I'm talking about myself. I've seen it in others, and I've seen it in myself. And you could swear on a Bible that you are doing exactly what is right, and that's because our mind has the capacity to do that.

"In this case, I worked very hard to prevent my personal feelings and my personal desire from influencing a decision that was going to be an important decision and the most difficult decision I'd ever make."

The implication here from Romney is that he was able to make this ostensibly difficult choice, which he believes is the right choice because he was able to consciously set aside his mind's own natural propensity to act in his immediate perceived best interest.

In a grand sense, what Romney is alluding to are the cognitive biases that influence -- or certainly try to influence -- every single decision we make.

What particular cognitive bias was Romney trying to avert? Well, there are a lot of them. And I'm not sure any singular cognitive bias fits bill. But a few jump out:

  • Outcome bias: The tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.
  • Courtesy bias: The tendency to give an opinion that is more socially correct than one's true opinion, so as to avoid offending anyone.
  • Bandwagon effect: The tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same.

These cognitive biases and many others were surely pulling Romney in the direction of siding with the members of his own party. But as he stated, he consciously tried to filter out any biases driven by self-interest or self-preservation in an effort to arrive at simply the best possible decision.

Was he successful in doing so? He seems to think so. At least right now.

It is fair to wonder if any cognitive biases might have acted on Romney in the other direction. Maybe. Heck, probably.

This leads to an even broader question: are we ever able to truly filter out all cognitive biases and reach a 100% pure, unbiased decision?

No, most likely not.

The combination of our natural disposition, our beliefs, and our experiences work together to help shape our decision making, and there are inherent biases mixed in there that may be inextricable from our decisions no matter how hard we try.

But that doesn't mean trying isn't worth it. It is. We can, and should, strive for more purity in our decision making. We can, and should, strive to at least be cognizant of the biases influencing us in any given moment.

The more we are aware of the cognitive biases that are jockeying for position to influence our decision, the better we will be able to making decisions we are at peace with now and will be able to defend in the future.

According to his own words, this is what Mitt Romney was trying to do. And whether you agree with his ultimate decision on impeachment or not, the process he says he used to make it is laudable and one that we can all learn from. 

This week in the THINKERS Workshop

This week in the THINKERS Roundup, you'll find three links to help you understand and manage cognitive biases better.

First, a quick update from inside the THINKERS Workshop.

This week, we posted the final lesson in our new mini course on brainwriting called Generate Better Ideas with Brainwriting. All THINKERS Workshop members have free access to those lessons.

In addition, we scheduled a live webinar for next week. It's free to all THINKERS Workshop members.

Here are the webinar details:


  • Who: THINKERS Notebook founders Sean Jackson and Jerod Morris
  • What: The ONE Thing You Must Do to Successfully Prioritize Your Ideas
  • When: Thursday, February 13th at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time
  • Where: Live on Zoom, with a replay posted afterwards 
  • Why: So you can learn the single most important factor in prioritizing ideas successfully, why it's so important, and how to properly account for it during your prioritization process. 

To access all the details, including the live Zoom link, and to RSVP, click here to visit the event page inside of the THINKERS Workshop.

The THINKERS Workshop costs $499.99 per year to be a member. If you own a THINKERS Notebook, then you get a special discount. Just reply to this email and let me know you have a notebook, and I'll pass along the discount code.

Now on to this week's links ...

Proven techniques for combatting cognitive bias

But asking those bigger, tougher questions does not come naturally. We’re cognitive misers—we don’t like to spend our mental energy entertaining uncertainties. It’s easier to seek closure, so we do.

This hems in our thinking, leading us to focus on one possible future (in this case, an office that performs as projected), one objective (hiring someone who can manage it under those circumstances), and one option in isolation (the candidate in front of us).

When this narrow thinking weaves a compelling story, System 1 kicks in: Intuition tells us, prematurely, that we’re ready to decide, and we venture forth with great, unfounded confidence. To “debias” our decisions, it’s essential to broaden our perspective on all three fronts.

Read:Outsmart Your Own Biases (Harvard Business Review)

How to overcome five common cognitive biases
Psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky introduced the concept of psychological bias in the early 1970s. They published their findings in their 1982 book, "Judgment Under Uncertainty."

They explained that psychological bias – also known as cognitive bias – is the tendency to make decisions or take action in an illogical way. For example, you might subconsciously make selective use of data, or you might feel pressured to make a decision by powerful colleagues.

Psychological bias is the opposite of common sense and clear, measured judgment. It can lead to missed opportunities and poor decision making.

Below, we outline five psychological biases that are common in business decision making. 

Read:Avoiding Psychological Bias in Decision Making: How to Make Objective Decisions (Mind Tools)

How to overcome common thinking mistakes and think clearly and objectively instead

This post isn’t about the biases. This post is about thinking clearly. Regardless of what the biases and errors are called or where they manifest, there are ways to counter them. Over 100 biases have been described and observed. They are pervasive. However, one can use the following 8 strategies to think clearly and objectively in spite of these tendencies to jump to wrong conclusions.

Read:8 powerful ways to overcome thinking errors and cognitive biases (Cognition Today)

Quote of the week

“If there's something you really want to believe, that's what you should question the most.”

Penn Jillette

Jerod Morris
Chief Creative Thinker