One Surprising Influence That Can Derail Your Decisions

Patrick McDaniel is the founder of, which combines practical research and timeless wisdom to help you keep moving forward despite the challenges of life. Want to learn about 49 other decision making distortions? Download the infographic: 50 Hidden Influences That Can Wreck Your Decisions.

Why do you aspire to be a leader?

Let’s be honest. We want to be leaders because we like leading and influencing people and organizations toward better things. We like impacting lives.

But impacting lives can also be risky.

If you are a leader (in any context like work, family, ministries/organizations), one thing that is unavoidable—

Your decisions WILL impact the lives of others. For good…or for bad.

That is a sobering reality.



Making Decisions as a Leader – An Unseen Danger

Here’s where it gets downright scary: There are factors at play in any decision you make that are often hidden and frequently mess up your best intentions.

These factors are like little gremlins that hijack your ability to make an unbiased decision. That can mess up not only your life but also those you lead.

Let me show you how just one of these distortion factors (technically known as “cognitive biases”) can screw up even your best efforts to make sound decisions…and how to combat it.



One Common Corrupting Influence You Can’t See

One common decision making influencer is called priming. Just like the proverbial “priming the pump,” we are influenced in certain directions when we are first “primed” by another variable.

Here are some bizarre-but-true examples of the priming effect. You can find these discussed in detail in the brilliant book Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman.



The Surprising Results of One Research Study

In a test performed by Psychology Professor John Bargh, participants were asked to do a word puzzle. One group received random words to work on while the second group got random words that were sprinkled with words associated with the elderly.

The words sprinkled in did NOT contain any explicit words like “old” or “elderly.” Instead, they were things like: Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkle.

When each group was done, they were asked to go down the hall to participate in a second experiment. In truth, the whole point of the experiment was found in that hallway.

What did the researchers discover?

  • The group that had the elderly related words walked down the hallway “significantly more slowly” than the other group.
  • This test group was subconsciously conditioned (primed!) to increase their awareness of the state of being elderly. Unknown to them, they were sort of identifying with this topic.
  • None of the participants were even aware of the elderly related words or of their slower walk. Instead, they insisted the earlier word puzzle had no effect on their subsequent behavior.

This is very common with these hidden influencers–you insist you are not influenced by them. This is one reason they are such a problem for us…they pull us off course while we insist that they haven’t.

Were the results of the above experiment a fluke? Read on.



More Revealing Results from a Second Research Study

In another experiment with two different groups of study participants, one group was unknowingly primed with rude words and concepts while the other group was primed with politeness-type stimuli. They then recorded how participants in each group interacted with a neutral party on an unrelated topic.

You don’t need me to tell you how this turned out.

Researchers found that the individuals who had been primed with rude stimuli interrupted the experimenter and their peers three times more frequently than the participants who had been primed with polite stimuli.



Hmmm… another coincidence?

Keep reading.


Still More Crazy Results from Other Research Studies

In two different studies with voters in Arizona…

  • Those who voted in a school (vs. a non-school voting site)
  • Those who voted outside a school voting location but who were indirectly exposed to school related images (lockers, classrooms)

…both groups were significantly more likely to support increased school funding compared to their respective control groups.

Even more amazing: even though these “primed” voters were a mix of parents and non-parents, the percentage of those in favor of increasing school funding was even higher than in polling of just parents in the general population.

Here is one more absolutely crazy research result.



The Craziest Results of All

In another research study, participants were indirectly primed with money related words and concepts. Some of the priming stimuli were incredibly subtle (for example: a computer screen saver in the background of the room with dollar bills floating in water)

Here’s what they discovered: The money primed-participants were more independent and more selfish in their behavior.

For example, the money-primed participants were much less willing to spend time helping another student who pretended to be confused about an experiment.

In another test, the experimenter “accidentally” dropped a bunch of pencils. The money-primed individuals picked up fewer pencils, indicating a lower willingness to help and serve.

After a variety of corroboratory tests, the researchers concluded that the primed participants were “reluctant to be involved with others, to depend on others, or to accept demands (requests) from others.”

Bottom line: Every day we are being silently influenced by stimuli that push and pull us…without our knowledge or consent. We think we are making decisions based on “the facts” …but those facts are being distorted.



How to Combat the Subverting Influences on Your Decision Making

If you are likely being unconsciously influenced all day, every day, what can you do?

How can you counteract these influences so you can make good decisions despite the unseen biases?

  1. Show Humility: Recognize that maybe, just maybe, you don’t see things as clearly or as unbiased as you think. Approaching decisions should always be done with a dose of humility.
  2. Be Aware: Lurking all around you are subliminal messages that are influencing your perceptions. Do you see them? Are you looking for them? You have a much better chance of counteracting them if you can pick up on their presence.
  3. Regulate Your Exposure: In the excellent book, “The 4:8 Principle,” Tommy Newberry reminds us to continually monitor the information we are letting into our eyes and ears. Only allow exposure of ideas that are commendable and praiseworthy and consistent with your values.
  4. Involve Others: When facing decisions, it is always wise to seek counsel. If you receive several perspectives besides your own, you are more able to “triangulate” a better, less biased perspective. Personally, I think this should include conferring with God, who sees things outside of personal biases.


If you like what you read, Patrick is offering the infographic for your download. 50 Hidden Influences That Can Wreck Your Decisions

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