Mental Substitution

A few years ago, I was in charge of recommending the location of a large production facility to a CEO.

The company already owned a smaller production facility. While reviewing the different alternatives, something interesting happened.

When I asked several stakeholders the question, “Which location would be best for the business?,” many argued for the existing location.

Upon further discussion it became clear they were convinced that expanding the existing facility would result in the least amount of hassle.

They didn’t answer the original question, “Which location would be best for the business?,” but instead answered a different, easier question, “Which location decision would be easiest to execute?”

Replacing a difficult question with an easier one is called mental substitution.

For example, the question, “How happy are you with the performance of an individual?” is often replaced with another easier question, “How much do you like the individual?”

Mental substitution is a very common mistake. The anti-dote is a simple follow-up question.

“Why exactly?”

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