Decision Making Skills

Making good decisions can improve your life more than perhaps any other single skill. It doesn’t always come naturally to us, as our brains are sometimes bad at judging how to make a good decision. For example, we tend to be really bad at ‘emotional forecasting’. This is the ability to accurately predict how we’ll feel if something happens in the future. In general we tend to over-exaggerate how bad or good we will feel. Also, we tend to over-estimate the importance of decisions that are urgent, even if they are not life-changing, and under-estimate the importance of decisions that are non-urgent, but potentially life-changing! Therefore, two of the most important decision-making skills are learning to think carefully about (1) the importance/potential impact of a choice, and (2) how desirable different outcomes are.

The other key decision-making skill is thinking about probabilities: how likely different outcomes are. When we really want a particular outcome to occur, we can trick ourselves into thinking it’s more likely than it really is. Equally, we can allow fear to get the better of us, and over-exaggerate the likelihood of bad outcomes. We can be particularly prone to this if the bad outcome is something that you are able to vividly visualize. In other words, things that we can imagine visually tend to be rated as more likely to happen than more abstract events. It’s just a quirk of our minds! Therefore it’s almost important to stop and try to think clearly about how likely a particular outcome really is.

Therefore, when faced with a decision, it’s a good idea to figure out each choice, or possible outcome, and think about three things for that choice/outcome: the possible impact it could have on your life, how desirable it is, and how likely it would happen.

When you’re trying to estimate all these things (importance, desirability, and probability) it helps to put a number on them, then you have a way of comparing different decisions. A great system for rating these things is called the Likert scale. This is simply a 1-to-7 scale, and is used a lot in psychology research. Of course, you can use a 1-to-10 or 1-to-100 scale if you are more comfortable with either of those, but there is something easy about using the Likert scale. Then you can use the scale to give a value for each of the three factors that matter. For example, the lowest and highest scores would mean:

How impactful is this choice?

1 = low impact

7 = Highest possible impact

How desirable is this choice to you?

1= lowest desirability possible

7= Highest desirability possible

How likely is it that this outcome would occur?

1= lowest likelihood

7 = Highest likelihood

Another thing worth thinking about is to what extent your decision is an emotional or logical one? For example, if you are deciding which bank account would be best to save your money in, this is a totally logical decision: all you need to do is weigh up the various pieces of information, such as the interest rates paid by the various accounts in order to arrive at the optimal decision. Something like choosing a new home is equally logical and emotional: you need to weigh up both the factual elements such as its cost, and whether its big enough for you, as well as the emotional considerations: do you like the house and would you feel comfortable living in it. Finally, there are decisions that are mainly emotional. Say, for example, that you are faced with several options that are pretty much equal when you add up the logical pros and cons, then you are going to have to decide between them on the basis of how you feel. If you are stuck between two choices and you can’t figure out which of the two to pick, then toss a coin, before it lands you will probably have a little glimmer of desire for which side you want it to land, and this will tell you where your heart truly lies!

There is another type of decision that is best taken emotionally. When you are faced with a decision that is just too complex to weigh up all the possible outcomes, or when –for whatever reason – you just aren’t able to assign a rating to each outcome. Then your gut-feeling could be the deciding factor. This is because your subconscious mind – responsible for the gut-feeling – is able to remember more things, and take into account more pieces of information than your conscious mind.

Finally, remember, in many cases, the worst decision of all is to just do nothing!