How we make the decisions we make
Do I go for a salad wrap or a bacon baguette? Do I answer this call from THAT colleague or let it go through to answerphone? Do I cross the road before or after that speeding car?
These are just a few of the decisions I had to make on my walk to the local sandwich shop over lunch. The decisions we make, large or small shape our lives and have the potential to shape the lives of others.
There are a number of big questions facing everyone at the moment which require imminent decisions. Whether it’s local, ‘Should I allow my child to play rugby in light of recent research?’ or more global ‘Should Britain remain in Europe?’
Our decisions (current research suggests we make approximately 35,000 a day1) are based on factors such as experience, time, available information and current mood, to name but a few. If we agree with the premise that our lives are made up of the decisions that we and others make, then surely we don’t take them lightly? Or do we?
To explore this further I want to reference two basic ways we make decisions:
Intuitive decision-making is relatively quick, using an internal hunch, requiring less effort than the rational process.
Rational decision-making is deliberate, logical, and involves a thorough search for, and evaluation, of options.
Intuitive decision-making is useful for managing large amounts of data in a relatively short amount of time. However, whilst the majority of decisions made in this way are accurate, they can be more prone to distortion by way of cognitive biases. This is significant as research suggests that intuitive decision making is used 80-90% of the time.2
Three biases that could be impacting our decision making now:
1. Halo Effect – Tendency for our overall impression of a person or organisation to influence our judgement on specific characteristics or matters. For example, with ‘Brexit’ how many votes will be down to the fact that an individual’s ‘favourite’ politician has voted one way or another.
2. Availability Bias – Tendency to base estimates of what’s more likely by what is more easily brought to mind i.e. biased towards salient, vivid, dramatic examples. For example, when news broke that an EgyptAir plane had been taken hostage I immediately came to the conclusion that it was an Islamic Terrorist and the situation would not end well. This bias was no-doubt brought on by recent global events in Pakistan, Belgium and France. In what other ways am I biased based on the information available to me?
3. Anchoring Bias – Tendency to rely too heavily on a past reference or piece of information when making decisions. For example: when looking to complete budgeting for the new financial year how many individuals and teams use last year’s budget as a ‘starter for ten’?
The problem with cognitive biases are that awareness is sadly not curative. Prominent neuropsychologists are just as susceptible to certain biases as you or I. Therefore, what hope do we have? Well, there are some ways we can counteract them. Below I have outlined three:
1. For the really important decisions ask yourself a question: ‘What evidence do I have to back this up?’ ‘Have I explored all the options available?’, ‘What bias am I most susceptible to at the moment?’
2. Be at one with your emotions. Research has shown that emotions have a powerful effect on decision making3. People in negative moods make faster and less discriminate use of information that can increase choice accuracy in easier tasks, but significantly decrease it in harder more complex tasks. Therefore, be aware of your mood and the impact it is having on your decision making.
3. Phone a friend. Making decisions in teams is a great way to increase diversity of thought and hold ideas and suggestions to account, and reality. However, be mindful of other biases creeping in such as Groupthink and need for closure bias.
How will you approach your next big question? The decision is yours.
2Klein, G. A. (1998). Sources of power: How people make decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
3Luce, M., Bettman, J., & Payne, J.W. (1997). Choice processing in emotionally difficult decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 23:384-405.