August 2013

Honing your Decision-Making Skills

by Sarah Thrift on August 12, 2013


I have just been reading the new book by Chip and Dan Heath: “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work”. It is a fascinating read, with a review of “villains” of decision-making, and a process to avoid them.

The authors identify four villains of decision-making:

  1. Narrow framing makes us miss options
  2. We gather self-serving information
  3. Short-term emotions (which will fade) dictate our choices
  4. We are overconfident about how the future will unfold (having too much faith in our predictions)

To make better decisions, they recommend the WRAP process:

  • Widen Your Options
  • Reality-Test Your Assumptions
  • Attain Distance Before Deciding
  • Prepare to Be Wrong

The bulk of the book talks you through the WRAP process, with plenty of juicy anecdotes to illustrate villains and process at work.

One of the most provoking things for me was thinking about villain 3, the impact of short-term emotions on our ability to make sound decisions.

George Loewenstein and Jennifer S. Lerner in their paper “The Role of Affect in Decision-Making” divide emotions during decision-making into two types:

  • those anticipating future emotions i.e. expectations of how the person will feel once gains or losses associated with that decision are experienced; and
  • those immediately experienced while deliberating and deciding. These may be connected to the decision at hand, to the current environment, or the dispositional affect of the person.

This leads me in two directions. The first is how much can we master ourselves to be aware of our emotional state? And how much of our emotional state is below the level of our conscious awareness and/or mastery?

Mastering ourselves, while very desirable, is unfortunately pretty challenging. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”

Let’s not lose hope here – but for most of us, we shouldn’t pin all our hopes on this either.

As for the second direction: there are lots of practical tips for mitigating the role of our emotions in decision-making, for instance:

  • Sleep on it: Yes, we all know this one, but do we really do it? Very few decisions have to be taken on the spot, yet so often we can act like urgent and immediate action is required.
  • 10-10-10: Use Suzy Welch’s 3 questions to create distance and perspective (see March 2013 for more details):How will I feel about this decision 10 minutes from now?
    How will I feel about it 10 months from now?
    How about 10 years from now?
  • Imagine you were advising your best friend: what would you tell him/her to do in this situation?

No rocket science here, but simple questions and tips to help us detach from our emotions and achieve the clarity we need for good decision-making.