Fallacies of “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”

Experience can be a liability; use appropriately.

“Once bitten, twice shy” means that someone will not do something a second time because they had a bad experience the first time they did it.

After reading “How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices” by Annie Duke, I realize the phrase is incorrect in many aspects, especially in a fast-changing operating environment; a phrase that should be used with caution actually.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

1. Outcome bias: Once bitten ≠ Twice shy

Outcome bias occurs when we equate a good outcome to having made the right decisions and doing the right things. Not necessarily. A good outcome does not necessarily mean good decisions and vice versa, though we often correlate good outcomes to good decisions. You can run a red light and get through the intersection unscathed. You can go through a green light and get in an accident.

How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, Annie Duke

An important aspect of becoming a better decision-maker is learning from experience. Experiences contain lessons for improving future decisions. To learn from just the outcomes, we are missing the forest for the trees. Being outcome biased will cause us to learn the wrong lessons from the experience. A bad outcome can be due to several factors: (a) being unlucky, (b) imperfect information, (c) our decision-making process as well as (d) our beliefs.

How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, Annie Duke

2. Hindsight bias: Past ≠ Future

Hindsight bias is the tendency to believe that an outcome was predictable or inevitable after it occurred. People often believe, after an event has occurred, that they would have predicted, or perhaps even would have known with a high degree of certainty, what the outcome of the event would have been before the event occurred. Hindsight bias distorts the way you process outcomes in two ways: (a) “should have known” and (b) “knew it all along”.

The author recommended using Knowledge Tracker as a tool that can help separate what we knew from what we subsequently learned.

How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, Annie Duke

3. Paradox of experiences

Experiences are things that have actually happened. A lot of experience can be an excellent teacher. A single experience may not be so; one bad experience may not be a good representative of the situation (a bad product/service experience with an established company, or a bad working experience with someone from different nationality). A single outcome may not tell us much about whether a decision was good or bad. With “once bitten, twice shy”, we act as it does. This creates a paradox.

If we keep regretting (a) the bad decisions and (b) not taking those options that would yield plausible good results, life can be quite miserable.

There are many possible futures but only one past (so-called “experience”). Because of this, the past feels inevitable.

Viewing the outcome that occurred in the context of other potential outcomes at the time of the decision can help to resolve this paradox. Annie Duke recommends re-creating the decision tree to put the actual outcome (where we were once bitten) in its proper context. This allows us to examine the decision quality made previously: whether the decisions made then were right compared to other options in consideration and/or if we were plain unlucky then. This will help to justify whether “twice shy” is valid.

Validating our beliefs: Our inside view versus the outside view

Most of us feel that we are better at solving other people’s problems than our own. An outsider’s perspective of our situation and problems can differ from our own perspective and assessment. What we can see so clearly and objectively in others is hard to see in ourselves. When we are inside our problems and situations, our vision becomes muddied and we lose objectivity.

Our beliefs can be a major source of obstacles to decision-making. It does not matter how good the quality of our decision process is if the beliefs surrounding the process are junk. We can be quite bad at knowing what is wrong with our beliefs; it is very hard for us to see the world from outside our own perspective.

Our beliefs can be our most significant blind spots and hindrance.

Here are some other commonly known cognitive biases that are also, in part, inside view problems:

  • Confirmation bias — Our tendency to notice, interpret and seek out information that confirms or strengthens our existing beliefs.
  • Disconfirmation bias — Confirmation bias’s sibling. Our tendency to apply a higher, more critical standard to information that contradicts our beliefs than to information that confirms them.
  • Overconfidence — Overestimating our skills, intellect, or talent, interfering with our ability to make decisions depending on such estimates.
  • Availability bias — The tendency to overestimate the frequency of events that are easy to recall because they are vivid or because we’ve experienced them a lot.
  • Recency bias — Believing that recent events are more likely to occur than they actually are.
  • Illusion of control — Overestimating our ability to control events. In other words, to underestimate the influence of luck.

Similarly, the other biases are ways you give your own experiences and beliefs excessive weight. Many common cognitive biases are, in part, the product of the inside view.

The outside view acts to help to correct our biases and inaccuracies that live in the inside view, which is why it is useful to anchor first to the outside view.

A key reason why others are able to assess and evaluate more objectively than we with our situation is that we are motivated to protect our beliefs when it comes to rationalizing our own situation. Our beliefs are the fabric of our identity. Discovering that we are wrong about something, questioning our beliefs, or admitting that some bad outcome was because of a bad decision we made and not just bad luck — all have the potential to tear that fabric (i.e. our ego).

The remedy for the inside view is to open ourselves up as much as possible to other people’s perspectives and what is true of the world in general, independent of our own experiences because that is where the corrective information lives. Allowing those perspectives to collide, by embracing ways in which other people see things differently, will get us closer to what is objectively true. And the closer we can get to what is objectively true, the less junk we will input into our decision process.

Be open-minded; embrace opinions and feedback.

How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, Annie Duke

4. Don’t accumulate “bites” and shy away; experiences become a liability

Our willingness to examine outcomes is asymmetrical. We are more eager to put our bad outcomes and experiences in context than good ones. Becoming a better decision-maker requires us to try (difficult though it may be) to put those good outcomes in perspective.

Over the years, as we made more decisions, there will be mistakes and bad experiences. Besides our own experiences, we also learn from the experiences of our parents, friends, bosses and social media. If we keep applying “once bitten, twice shy”, we can become unnecessarily and overly risk-averse, cautious, and timid.

The pace of change has been fast; accelerated by technology. Should we keep clinging to our past “bites” and shy away (resistance to change), we may be holding on to incorrect deep-rooted beliefs and miss many possibilities and opportunities. As we accumulate more “bites”, our options and opportunities can get lesser. Experiences become a liability; our limiting beliefs.

Rather, whenever we are being “bitten”, consider whether the bad outcome is the result of our beliefs, being unlucky, imperfect information, or our decision-making process.

Time to reflect, reprocess, and update our experiences and beliefs for our future decisions.

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”

Carl Gustav Jung

Don’t let experiences bite us necessarily.