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Top 10 Tips for Avoiding Cognitive Biases in Moving

Gleb Tsipursky
Top 10 Tips for Avoiding Cognitive Biases in Moving
Want to have a successful move? Who doesn’t, right? I remember the first time my wife and I moved together from Boston, MA, to Chapel Hill, NC, where I was about to start a PhD program in history, focusing on behavioral science. We made so many mistakes when we moved - all because I didn’t yet have the knowledge about cognitive biases I gained when getting my Ph.D.

Cognitive biases are dangerous judgment errors that cause us to make poor decisions, and there are so many important decisions to make in moving. After all, moving is a complex and often stressful undertaking involving many tasks, decisions, and investments of time, money, and emotional energy. 

While logistical challenges are inevitable, falling for cognitive biases is not. My wife and I found that these biases can lead us to make poor estimates, ignore crucial details, and even hinder effective teamwork. However, by understanding and actively counteracting these psychological tendencies, we can significantly improve the efficiency and success of our moving experience. 

Thus, when we moved from Chapel Hill, NC, to Columbus, OH, where I started my job as a professor at The Ohio State University, we did a much better job with our move. Let’s deeply dive into the tactics we used to help us make the best moving decisions.

1. Overcoming Optimism Bias: Perform a Pre-Mortem

Optimism bias is a common cognitive error that leads us to underestimate risks and overestimate positive outcomes. This can be especially problematic during a move. 

Consider a scenario where you assume packing your kitchen will only take two hours. This optimistic perspective might lead you to schedule the task for the morning of the move, setting yourself up for potential issues. This misjudgment can result in last-minute stress, hurried packing that risks damaging items, and even additional fees from the moving company due to delays.

To counter the risks of optimism bias, try a pre-mortem exercise:

  • Imagine a Move Disaster: Visualize a scenario where your move turns into a disaster.

  • Identify Potential Pitfalls: Reflect on what went wrong in this hypothetical scenario.

  • Unearth Hidden Pitfalls: By examining this worst-case scenario, you can uncover potential pitfalls that might not have been apparent initially.

The insights gained from the pre-mortem exercise can greatly improve your planning:

  • Adjust Your Plan: Learn from the exercise and adjust your plans accordingly.

  • Allocate Adequate Time: Instead of a two-hour window, allocate an entire day or weekend for packing the kitchen.

  • Handle Unexpected Complications: This adjustment provides time to carefully wrap dishes, sort items effectively, and manage any unforeseen challenges.

By integrating the pre-mortem approach, you can enhance your planning process and make more accurate decisions when estimating time and resources for your move. This proactive strategy helps you anticipate and address potential challenges, leading to a smoother and less stressful moving experience.

Overcoming Optimism Bias

2. Diversify Your Estimates: Avoid the Planning Fallacy

Moving on from optimism bias, the planning fallacy is another cognitive quirk leading to underestimating the time and resources required for tasks. This bias can create overly optimistic schedules, leading to stress and additional costs during your move. 

Consider the example of disassembling and packing furniture: you might initially assume it will only take a couple of hours, but the reality could be that just disassembling the furniture takes an entire morning. This situation can lead to similar consequences as optimism bias but stems from a different cause, requiring a distinct approach for resolution.

To combat the planning fallacy, it's crucial to incorporate diverse estimates for time and resources:

  • Gather Information: Consult various sources, such as friends who've recently moved, moving blogs, or professional movers.

  • Create Realistic Averages: By collecting input from different sources, you can create a more balanced and realistic average estimate for each task involved in your move.

  • Integrate Estimates: Incorporate these diversified estimates into your planning tools and decision-making process.

Utilizing diversified estimates offers multiple benefits:

  • Realistic Schedule: You create a schedule more aligned with the time needed for tasks.

  • Buffer for Complications: This approach provides a buffer for unexpected complications that may arise.

  • Risk Reduction: By avoiding overcommitting your time and resources, you reduce the risk of stress and financial issues caused by a poorly planned move.

Incorporating diverse estimates enhances your moving strategy, ensuring a smoother and more efficient relocation process. This approach counteracts the planning fallacy, empowering you to make well-informed decisions and minimize the challenges associated with moving.

3. Break Down Costs: Counteract the Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive trap that keeps individuals engaged in a course of action based on previous investments of time, money, or effort. 

In the context of moving, this bias can manifest when you've spent resources on premium packing materials that prove impractical or excessive. For example, imagine investing in a substantial amount of premium bubble wrap, only to discover later that it's not suitable for all items or that you have more than necessary. 

Despite realizing this, the sunk cost fallacy might drive you to use it anyway, solely because you've already invested.

Break Down Costs

To counteract this bias, it's crucial to break down all costs—monetary, emotional, and time-related—right at the start of your moving project:

  • Comprehensive Cost Assessment: List all the resources you've already committed to the move.

  • Current Value Evaluation: Evaluate the present utility of these investments.

  • Strategic Decision-Making: If certain investments, like excessive bubble wrap, aren't delivering expected benefits, explore alternative uses or consider selling them.

Continual assessment of your investments and being open to pivoting is vital:

  • Flexibility in Decision-Making: This approach liberates you from the shackles of past decisions that no longer align with your current needs.
  • Efficiency and Cost-Effectiveness: By avoiding the sunk cost trap, you enable a more adaptable, efficient, and cost-effective moving process.

By actively addressing the sunk cost fallacy, you empower yourself to make decisions grounded in current and future value rather than being burdened by past investments. This strategy enhances your ability to navigate the moving process with a keen eye on efficiency and effectiveness.

4. Limit Your Options: Don’t Fall for Information Bias

Information bias is the tendency to seek excessive information, leading to analysis paralysis and suboptimal choices due to cognitive overload. In the context of moving, this bias can complicate the process unnecessarily. For instance, when selecting a moving company, you might become overwhelmed by sifting through countless reviews, comparing exhaustive lists of services and prices, and soliciting advice from numerous sources. 

This overload of information consumes time and can blur your judgment, rendering the decision-making process more bewildering than necessary.

To address information bias, adopt the strategy of limiting the options you consider:

  • Cull the Choices: Narrow your selection to 3-5 moving companies, packing materials, or services based on initial impressions, recommendations, or crucial criteria.

  • Structured Evaluation: Once you've curated your options, employ a weighted decision matrix for systematic evaluation.

  • Factor Weights: Assign varying weights to factors like cost, reliability, and customer reviews in the decision matrix.

  • Calculate Scores: Calculate a score for each option based on the weighted factors.

The benefits of this approach are substantial:

  • Enhanced Decision Clarity: By consciously reducing choices, you enhance clarity and prevent mental overload.

  • Time Efficiency: This strategy saves time that might otherwise be spent on exhaustive research.

  • Informed Choices: By using a structured evaluation system, you increase the probability of making well-informed, rational decisions.

Embracing intentional limitation and employing a systematic evaluation method empower you to streamline the decision-making process. This results in clearer, more efficient choices, ultimately contributing to a smoother and more informed moving experience.

5. Adopt a Devil’s Advocate Approach: Fight the Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a cognitive inclination to seek, interpret, and recall information that aligns with preexisting beliefs. This bias can manifest in various ways during the moving process. For instance, if you've had a positive experience with a specific moving company, you might focus solely on their positive reviews while disregarding or minimizing negative ones. 

This selective attention can lead to a distorted and potentially flawed decision-making process.

To counteract confirmation bias, consider adopting the Devil's Advocate approach within your moving team:

  • Appoint a Critical Role: Designate a person to serve as the Devil's Advocate, responsible for challenging prevailing opinions and decisions.

  • Balanced Decision-Making: If the team leans towards a particular moving company due to positive online reviews, the Devil's Advocate investigates and presents counterarguments. This could involve highlighting negative reviews or suggesting alternative options with better value or services.

Incorporating the Devil's Advocate role into your decision-making process yields significant benefits:

  • Enhanced Decision Quality: This approach fosters a more balanced and comprehensive evaluation of options.

  • Reduced Bias Influence: By actively countering confirmation bias, you minimize the risk of making suboptimal decisions.

  • Informed Choices: The Devil's Advocate ensures that decisions are based on a broader perspective rather than skewed by biased information.

By embracing the Devil's Advocate approach, you empower your team to make well-rounded and rational decisions free from the constraints of confirmation bias. This strategy contributes to a more effective and unbiased moving experience.

6. Use a Checklist: Overcome the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Use a Checklist

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where individuals with limited ability or experience in a particular field tend to overestimate their competence. In the realm of moving, this bias can lead to underestimating the intricacies involved. 

For instance, you might assume that handling the entire packing process is straightforward, only to realize later the overwhelming intricacies of packing delicate items, dismantling furniture, and coordinating the entire move.

To counteract the Dunning-Kruger effect, employing a comprehensive checklist is strongly recommended:

  • All-Encompassing Guide: Create a checklist that spans all stages of the moving process, including initial planning, inventory listing, packing, transportation, and unpacking at the new destination.

  • Detailed Task Breakdown: Break down each stage into specific tasks. For instance, the "packing" stage could include sub-tasks such as "pack kitchenware," "disassemble living room furniture," and "secure fragile items."

The benefits of using a detailed checklist are many:

  • Guided Approach: A checklist provides a structured framework, ensuring that no essential tasks are overlooked.

  • Clear Direction: By breaking down each stage, you eliminate uncertainty and enhance clarity on the scope of work.

  • Avoiding Overwhelm: This approach prevents the underestimation of complexities and safeguards against getting overwhelmed by the moving process.

By embracing a comprehensive checklist, you effectively address the Dunning-Kruger effect. This tool safeguards against overestimation, offering clear guidance and ensuring a more organized and efficient moving experience.

7. Use the Two-Minute Rule: Counter Ostrich Effect

The Ostrich Effect is a cognitive bias that prompts individuals to overlook undesirable or seemingly insignificant details, often to their own detriment. In the context of moving, this bias can lead to neglecting vital small tasks, such as labeling boxes or securing loose items, assuming they lack immediate importance. 

For instance, you might delay labeling packed boxes, assuming you'll remember their contents, only to find yourself faced with confusion and time-consuming challenges when you arrive at your new home and urgently need specific items.

To counteract the Ostrich Effect, adopting the two-minute rule can prove highly effective:

  • Principle of Efficiency: The two-minute rule stems from time-management principles. It dictates that a task requiring less than two minutes to complete should be addressed immediately.

  • Immediate Action: Embrace this approach to tackle quick tasks promptly. For instance, label a box immediately after packing it or update your address with essential services.

  • Prevent Accumulation: By taking swift action on small tasks, you prevent them from accumulating into larger problems over time.

The two-minute rule functions as an antidote to the tendency to neglect minor tasks. It compels you to address them promptly, resulting in a cumulative effect significantly contributing to a smoother, more organized, and less stressful moving experience. 

By incorporating this rule, you ensure that both substantial and minor tasks receive the necessary attention, maintaining a consistent flow of productivity throughout the moving process.

8. Schedule Regular Check-ins: Mitigate Groupthink

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that arises when a desire for harmony and conformity within a group leads to irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. This dynamic can become a substantial challenge when orchestrating a move with a family or team. 

The risk is that the pursuit of consensus may overshadow the critical evaluation needed for effective planning and execution. For instance, when one family member proposes a specific moving company due to a discount, others might readily agree to avoid conflict, neglecting to scrutinize other essential factors like reliability.

To counteract the impact of groupthink, integrating regular check-ins throughout the moving process is vital:

  • Structured Communication: Establish a framework for scheduled check-in sessions, where participants are encouraged to express their thoughts, suggestions, and opinions openly.

  • Prioritize Transparency: Create an environment where transparency is the norm. This fosters open dialogue and ensures that diverse viewpoints are taken into account.

  • Embrace Diversity: Encourage the inclusion of all perspectives and refrain from immediately dismissing any ideas. This enables comprehensive consideration of various angles.

By infusing the decision-making process with regular check-ins and embracing diverse viewpoints, you mitigate the pitfalls of groupthink. This approach safeguards against hasty consensus-driven decisions, ensuring that the chosen moving strategy is well-rounded, comprehensive, and robust.

9. Seek External Input: Address Self-Serving Bias

As important as it is to address groupthink, you must also address the self-serving bias. This involves a cognitive inclination to attribute positive outcomes to one's own abilities and negative outcomes to external factors. In the realm of moving, this bias could manifest in an overly positive assessment of your own logistical skills based on past successful moves. 

You might overlook the vital contributions of others or favorable circumstances that facilitated those successes. For instance, you may attribute the smoothness of a previous move entirely to your organizational skills, ignoring the role played by helpful friends, good weather, or a particularly competent moving company.

To counteract this self-serving bias, it's crucial to seek external input and perspectives actively. Reach out to those involved in your past moves and ask for their insights. Consult moving experts or online resources that could offer a more rounded view of what makes a move successful. 

Seek External Input

Gathering various perspectives can construct a more balanced understanding of your past moving experiences. This broadens your view and enables you to give credit where it's due, recognizing the valuable contributions of others and even external conditions that you may have previously disregarded.

Engaging in this multifaceted evaluation mitigates the self-serving bias and leads to more informed and robust decision-making for the upcoming move. It makes you aware of the full spectrum of factors contributing to a successful move, allowing you to replicate those conditions more effectively.

10. Conduct a Post-Mortem: Learn from Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is a cognitive distortion that leads individuals to retrospectively believe they "knew it all along," fostering an illusion of predictability and potentially inflating confidence in their decision-making skills. In the context of moving, hindsight bias often emerges after the completion of a move. 

For instance, if the move unfolds smoothly, there's a risk of attributing the success solely to impeccable planning and execution, neglecting external factors like favorable weather or exceptional moving company services. Conversely, if challenges arise, one might wrongly assume they are inevitable, disregarding potential preemptive measures.

To counteract hindsight bias, conducting a post-mortem analysis upon completion of the move is paramount:

  • Balanced Evaluation: Engage in a structured review of both successful and unsuccessful aspects of the move while avoiding exclusive attribution of outcomes to skill or lack thereof.

  • Holistic Perspective: Evaluate the roles played by planning, execution, and external factors in shaping the move's outcomes. Consider unexpected challenges that could be proactively managed in future moves and recognize the impact of external factors contributing to success.

  • Informed Learning: The post-mortem analysis facilitates insightful reflection and learning. Recognize the intricate interplay of various factors, giving due credit to external elements and chance occurrences alongside your own efforts.

The insights gained from this reflective analysis prove invaluable for planning subsequent moves or complex endeavors. This practice empowers you to replicate successes and avert the recurrence of mistakes, offering a comprehensive approach to optimize future moves and projects.


When my wife and I first moved from Boston to Chapel Hill for my Ph.D. program, our lack of understanding of cognitive biases led us to make several mistakes. Fast-forward to our transition to Columbus for my role at The Ohio State University, and it was a completely different experience. Armed with the knowledge and tactics to counter cognitive biases, we executed a far more efficient and less stressful move.

Each tip in this article represents a lesson learned from our experiences and extensive research in behavioral science. From overcoming optimism bias through pre-mortems to conducting post-mortems to learn from hindsight bias, these strategies are more than theoretical concepts; they are practical tools that anyone can use to improve the decision-making landscape of a move.

Remember, while moving will inevitably involve logistical challenges, the internal roadblocks posed by cognitive biases are entirely within your control to manage. So, whether you're relocating across states or just down the street, being aware of these biases and actively working to counter them can make a world of difference. It did for us, and it can for you, too.

Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a writer for Top10 and a scholar of behavioral economics and neuroscience. Called the 'Office Whisperer' by The New York Times, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps leaders improve retention and productivity as the CEO of the consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He's also the best-selling author of several books, and was featured in over 750 titles in CBS News, Time, Scientific American, Psychology Today, Inc. Magazine, and CNBC.