Omar Farghal | February 22, 2021

Why do we repeat our mistakes: The Groundhog Effect.

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Groundhog Day took place this month in the United States. The holiday was made more famous by the classic Bill Murray movie of the same name. In this film the main character relives the same day over and over and over…for an undisclosed number of presumably years. Experts annually review the movie and make educated guesses that range from eight, to ten, to twenty to 1000 years made up of the same repeated day. The film also fosters conversation about how we do, or do not, learn from our mistakes and why we sometimes seem to make the same ones over and over again.

Close friends of mine moved to a new house in a new city several years ago.  The first time I went to their new place I overshot their address and pulled into the neighbor’s driveway.  Life happens as it does, and the next time I went to their new home I did the same thing. Understandable. What happens next may not surprise you. It has been several years, and I still make that wrong turn more than half of the time I visit. What is happening?

Pattern development.  I have developed a neural pathway that tells me to “do what I have always done before” as the default.  Why would my brain do that? A couple of reasons. While the overshot is a mistake, it does not ever stop me from achieving the end goal of getting to my friend’s house.  No harm, no foul. The consequence is minimal so the need to learn a new pathway is diminished. Changing an established pathway and learning a new one can often feel more difficult than learning something new. People on the whole are averse to change so why go through the discomfort of change for something so small. The problem is that this phenomenon applies to big things as well.  This is why individuals continue to choose an abusive partner, or companies stick with failing business strategies, and many other such examples.  

Many articles cite the advice to “slow down the decision” the next time around to counteract habit and allow the opportunity to make a better decision. This is not particularly accurate though. Slowness alone does not make individuals more likely to be right. In fact, they may make the same or worse decisions because they are using weaker information in their process. According to Roozbeh Kiani, an assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Neural Science, there is a good reason for this.

“The reason for the reliance on worse information might be that ‘the brain gets involved in a quest to understand why the error took place,’ Kiani said. It tries to figure out, why did this error happen? Did something about the world change? Is there something wrong with me? “The negative feedback triggers a cascade of computations,” Kiani said, which distract from the decision at hand.”

How do we avoid this? Take a break. Information overload, stress, decision fatigue, and other such factors break down our ability to process higher quality information and we instead rely upon, and therefore reinforce, mistake pathways in the brain so that we make the same mistake we did last time. 

Kelly Haws, an associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, has conducted research that indicates when we focus on a past mistake in order to not repeat it, we may be more likely to do so. This is consistent with other studies on a phenomenon called “target fixation”. Target fixation occurs when an individual becomes so focused on one thing that they exclude other factors to their potential detriment. In military training and professional driving courses this is taught in conjunction with crash avoidance.  For example, if you swerve to avoid hitting a deer and are heading towards a tree, you should focus on the space next to the tree, not the tree.  If you focus on the tree, you are more likely to hit it as you are turning all attention and action towards it.  Similarly, if you focus on what you did wrong last time you often inadvertently end up repeating it or making a different mistake. 

Bill Murray’s character goes through whole cycles of essentially similar mistakes in trying to use his situation to win the heart of his coworker. His success comes when he stops focusing on trying to “win” her and starts focusing on improving himself to become someone worthy of her.  In similar fashion, we can all use this February to take time to acknowledge the mistakes we repeat and where we have gone off course in the past, and then move forward towards better decisions by aiming for where we want to be. How exactly do we do that though?

Changing any behavior or habit requires both acknowledging there is a flaw in the current pattern and a willingness to commit to consistent, incremental, change. A bad habit, or consistent repeated error, can only be corrected by replacing the habit or pattern with a better one. One way in which you can create new habits for making decisions is to adopt a consistent repeatable process that replaces more ad hoc driven systems.  Allovance has developed a software around such a system to make the process easier to adopt and use in a consistent manner. Just like a personal trainer gives you a structured approach to reaching your fitness goals, a Decision Coach can help your team stay on track and break old, biased, ways of allocating and advancing resources and projects. Bill Murray looked to the residents of Punxsutawney to help him learn new ways of doing and being.  Who will you look to? Who will be your coach to guide you to a more fit organization? (Hint: This is where you say “Allovance”)  No matter who you choose to be your companion on the journey to make better decisions and not repeat old mistakes remember; the change needs to be structured, consistent, and repeatable.

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