Overcome Your Brain’s Decision-Making Limitations

4 factors that limit our ability to make good decisions and how to beat them

Which vehicle should I buy? Should I marry this person? Do I take this job or keep the one I have? Do I fire Susan or put her on an improvement plan? People have proven time and time again how difficult it is to make a good decision. Below I’ve shared some insights from the book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.

In the book, authors Chip and Dan Heath explain the research behind decision making and why we’re notoriously bad at it. For example, 83% of corporate mergers provide no return on investment. Seems like a pretty clear sign that we should avoid them right? Nonetheless, there are hundreds of mergers going on right now. What is it about the human mind that keeps us so blind to the facts? Chip and Dan dub them “the four villains of decision making.” They are…

  1. We have too narrow of a focus. We shine a “spotlight” only on certain information, the most apparent and easy to find. This causes us to miss or avoid important information that would help with the decision. Find ways to widen your options to combat this villain.
  2. We fall into confirmation bias. As soon as our brain has judged a situation, it seeks out information and data that supports that position. We have nothing to show us the other side of the argument. Take time to research the reasons for NOT making the choice you think you should to overcome this limiting factor.
  3. We get caught in short-term emotion. Like an impulse purchase, we decide we’re going to get something or do something and we just do it. It’s the short-term emotion that drives that behavior, and the only thing that helps is distancing yourself from it. That’s why researchers suggest “sleeping on it” before making any major decision.
  4. We are guilty of overconfidence. It happens on wall street, it happens in corporations, it happens in Hollywood. A major label company turned down the Beatles because they were certain that “4 person groups with guitars were out of style.” To make sure your confidence doesn’t get the best of you, be open to the possibility that you will be wrong and prepare for it. Don’t let this paralyze your decision, but let it serve as a reminder that nothing is “a sure thing.”

How to Make Sure You Make Better Decisions

Chip and Dan offer great tips and examples for combatting the above “villains.” My favorite is the one for widening your options (fighting villain #1). It’s called “Vanishing Options.”

You simply ask the hypothetical question, “what if all the options we have right now were no longer options?” This forces the mind to move on to a new track and make different connections by seeing the problem from another point of view. If your dilemma is “do I fire this person or keep them on,” you might consider how they could be leveraged in a different role that better fits their strengths. In most situations, we’re looking at too few choices because our brain has spotlighted them as the only options, and we get wound up in the short-term emotion of those choices.

So what do you do when you get caught in that short term emotion? Get some distance by using the 10/10/10 method. When you’re struggling with an emotional decision, potentially something similar to “do I take a higher paying job with more prestige and more stress, or the lower paying more fulfilling job,” you can apply the 10/10/10 method.

Presume that you’ve made the decision one way or the other, and then answer the following questions, “how will I feel about this 10 minutes from now? 10 months from now? 10 years from now?” As many might assume, the right answer is not always dictated by how you’ll feel 10 years from now, it’s simply a mechanism for getting perspective. The 10/10/10 method ensures that you take a moment to consider the implications of your decisions outside of the current emotional torrent you’re feeling.

The next time you’re making a decision, think about the “four villains” and see if you’re falling prey to the natural tendencies of the human mind.

Question for you... Which villain is the most common culprit in your decision making process? Share your thoughts in the comments or on Facebook / LinkedIn / Twitter

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