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Conquer ‘planning fallacy’

Almost everyone who has constructed a house or an apartment has underestimated the time it would take to complete the project. In fact, when the construction is close to finishing, with only the finer aspects like the interiors remaining, we tend to be unduly optimistic about when we can move in. Typically, the “moving in” day gets delayed by at least a few months, and in some cases even years.

While we may dismiss delays in construction as involving myriad complex factors outside our control, what about projects that we are solely responsible for? Do we meet our own personal deadlines for office projects, college reports, or even cleaning out our cupboards? As many students can attest, we tend to underestimate the duration of most tasks. In fact, this phenomenon is so ubiquitous that psychologists even have a name for it.

The term, “planning fallacy,” first coined by Noble laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, refers to people’s innate tendency to be overoptimistic about their own capabilities to meet deadlines. What is most intriguing about this cognitive bias is that it is so deeply ingrained that we succumb to it time and again, ignoring evidence that should be staring us in the face.

In his 2011 book, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, Kahneman recounts an embarrassing anecdote with his characteristic humility. He, along with a team of noted educationists, were assigned the task of designing a curriculum and writing a textbook for high school students on judgment and decision-making in Israel.

Before embarking on the project, Kahneman asked members of his team to individually estimate how long it would take them to complete the project. Most estimates ranged between two to two and a half years. Kahneman then asked the dean of Hebrew University’s School of Education, who was also on the esteemed panel, how long such projects typically took. The dean’s response of seven years should have alerted Kahneman and his team about the unfeasibility of the project as none of the members were willing to invest so much time in the project.

After a short debate, the team ignored the dean’s figure and continued with business as usual. It finally took them eight years to complete the project by which time the Ministry of Education, which had commissioned the project, had lost interest.

While we may take heart that even Kahneman is prone to the planning fallacy, are there any measures we can take to safeguard ourselves from falling prey to it time and again? One precaution that we can take is not to disregard data about past experiences, especially failures. One reason that Kahneman and his team failed to make an accurate prediction is that they overlooked information provided by the dean that similar projects usually took seven years. In addition to relying on your own past experiences, you may consult with others who have done similar projects before you wager a guess on how much time you would need.

‘Unpack’ complex tasks

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, by Justin Kruger and Matt Evans in 2004, suggests another possible solution. In order to urge people to make more realistic predictions, the researchers asked subjects to ‘unpack’ complex tasks into their component steps. In tasks as diverse as shopping to formatting a document to cooking, participants who were prompted to list the steps involved provided longer and more accurate estimates than individuals who didn’t ‘unpack’ the task. Further, the researchers found that effectiveness of this strategy increases with the complexity of a task.

Thus, if you are revising for your final exam, instead of estimating how much time you will need overall to prepare, list out each subject separately. Better still, make a list of individual chapters in each subject and then approximate how long you would need to study for each. The likelihood of your making a realistic appraisal will increase when you follow this strategy.

‘Outside’ view

Another method suggested by psychologist Roger Buehler and his colleagues is to imagine a third-person performing the task. When subjects were instructed to predict how long another person would take to complete a task, they were less prone to making overoptimistic predictions. Apparently, mentally visualising a third-person doing a task helps us focus on potential hindrances, which then leads to more realistic estimates.

So, if you have an upcoming research project, envision a peer doing it to get a more authentic timeframe. In a video interview posted online at Inc.Video, Kahneman urges us to take the ‘outside’ view, which is typically far more reliable than our own, inside one.

Finally, we must remember that we are prey to the planning fallacy not just when we don’t have sufficient information, but when we don’t use data that we have.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 1:50:49 AM |

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