Inspired by these findings, Tinsley’s team asked participants to consider a hypothetical mission with a near miss and to rate the project leader’s competence. She found that emphasising factors like safety, and the organisation’s visibility, meant that people were more likely to spot the event as a warning sign of a potential danger. The participants were also more conscious of the latent danger if they were told they would have to explain their judgement to a senior manager. Given these findings, organisations should emphasise everyone’s responsibility for spotting latent risks and reward people for reporting them.
Savani agrees that we can protect ourselves from the outcome bias. He has found, for instance, that priming people to think more carefully about the context surrounding a decision or behaviour can render them less susceptible to the outcome effect. The aim should be to think about the particular circumstances in which it was made and to recognise the factors, including chance, that might have contributed to the end result.
One way to do this is to engage in counter-factual thinking when assessing your or someone else’s performance, he says. What factors might have caused that different outcome? And would you still rate the decision or process the same way, if that had occurred?
Consider that case of the scientist who was fudging their drug results. Even if the drug was safe in the end, imagining the worst-case scenario – with patient deaths – would make you more conscious of the risks he was taking. Similarly, if you were that pilot who chose to fly in unsuitable conditions, you might look at each flight to examine any risks you were taking and to think through how that might have played out in different circumstances.
Whether you are an investor, a pilot or a Nasa scientist, these strategies to avoid the outcome bias will help prevent a chance success from blinding you to dangers in front of your eyes. Life is a gamble, but you can at least stack the odds in your favour, rather than allowing your mind to lull you into a false sense of security.
David Robson is a writer based in London and Barcelona. His first book, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things, is out now. He is d_a_robson on Twitter.