Making the choices your future self will love
Skip the shortcuts. Add new options instead
How do we make big decisions? It starts with sorting out our options, often eliminating some. Johnson introduces two key data points:
We tend to not add any new options during the decision-making process. In Johnson’s study, only 15% of people did so.
And only 29% of the time did people look into more than one alternative.
Let that sink in. When making important choices in our lives, we’re more than likely shutting our eyes to the alternatives—certainly if you have a preferred option in mind from the start. And with a big decision looming, it can feel like an unnecessary detour or delay if you, say, make a longer list of possibilities to kick off your quest, or if you choose to expand your options along the way.
But do shortcuts get us to the best possible solution?
I don’t believe they do. And the research seems to back that up: Of all the decisions studied where only limited time was spent looking at alternatives, people saw half of those decisions as being wrong in hindsight. When they’d considered at least two alternatives on the other hand, people were satisfied with their decision in two cases out of three.
I used to think that not seriously considering alternatives meant that you’d overlook some potentially good solutions. That’s certainly true. But the effects seem to go much farther: You run a very real risk of making decisions you’ll later regret.
So when facing a big choice, take some time to put more options on the table.
Mixed groups make better decisions. Period.
And there’s something else that’s key to making good decisions. How diverse is the group you’re making choices with?
Researchers suggest you diversify the group of people who are helping make the decision. About a decade ago, the social psychologist Samuel Sommers conducted a series of mock trials in which a jury debated and evaluated evidence from a sexual assault case. Some of the juries were entirely white, while other juries were more diverse in their racial makeup. By almost every important metric, the racially mixed juries performed better. They considered more potential interpretations of the evidence, remembered information about the case more accurately and engaged in the deliberation process with more rigor and persistence.
Homogeneous groups—whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics—tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.
Yet another reason to surround yourself with a diverse network of bright people. You help each other make better choices.
Weird scenarios and “premortems”
Another way to improve your decision-making is scenario planning. One common pitfall is thinking through only the positive scenario for each option. It’s better to lay out three scenarios:
Concoct one story where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird.
Johnson points out another method for taking a closer look at a big decision: the premortem.
The psychologist Gary Klein has developed a variation on this technique. He calls it a “premortem.” As the name suggests, the approach is a twist on the medical procedure of post-mortem analysis. In a post-mortem, the subject is dead, and the coroner’s job is to figure out the cause of death. In a premortem, the sequence is reversed: “Our exercise,” Dr. Klein explains, “is to ask planners to imagine that it is months into the future and that their plan has been carried out. And it has failed. That is all they know; they have to explain why they think it failed.”
This mental exercise can help us come to more sound decisions. We’re generally pretty fond of our own ideas. Looking at things from the vantage point of an imagined catastrophe helps break open our thinking. Once we truly consider such possibilities, we can shore up our proposed solutions as needed.
Be extra critical if the “best” option was your first idea
Give yourself more than one alternative to consider
Surround yourself with a diverse group of people, and float your ideas in your network
Consider three scenarios for each option—where things get better, worse, and weird
Picture the absolute worst-case scenario for your preferred solution, to uncover and fix hidden issues
Making complex decisions is a job in itself. Don’t underestimate how much time and energy it requires. But the research is clear: skip the shortcuts and take the time you need. Your future self will thank you.
Good luck with your choices and have a great week,
PS Steven Johnson wrote a book on the topic called Farsighted, if you want to read more.