How to Improve Decision Making?

Why a lot of our decisions are not as good as they could be?
Decisions. We make them every day. What to wear, where to go for dinner, which way to go to work, how much money to spend, what we want out of life. But a lot of our decisions are not as good as they could be. Why? Our brains are pretty often not as smart as we think.
Making decisions can be a challenging task in life. Every one of us makes hundreds of decisions each day, some more important – as in what do I want to do with my life? – and some less so – what is my favorite color?
PART 1
Why is decision making so hard?
Why is it so hard to make good decisions? Here are some of the answers from science:

Immediate rewards triumph potential rewards in the future
Planned on going to the gym but ended up on the sofa watching tv and eating cake instead?

You are not alone. Our brains are shaped by tens of thousands of years of evolution. And for most of that time, our ancestors were more likely to survive if they went for immediate and certain rewards instead of going for uncertain, delayed gratification.

When faced with the decision of eating cake or going for a run, our brains tend to choose the first option. Because our ancestors would have been wise to have chosen the cake – they never knew when food would be available again. Smart in an environment where food is scarce – not as smart in an environment with an abundance of (not so healthy) food.
Planned on going to the gym but ended up on the sofa watching tv and eating cake instead?

You are not alone. Our brains are shaped by tens of thousands of years of evolution. And for most of that time, our ancestors were more likely to survive if they went for immediate and certain rewards instead of going for uncertain, delayed gratification.

When faced with the decision of eating cake or going for a run, our brains tend to choose the first option. Because our ancestors would have been wise to have chosen the cake – they never knew when food would be available again. Smart in an environment where food is scarce – not as smart in an environment with an abundance of (not so healthy) food.
We are not rational
Humans' decision making process involves two major systems in our brains: one fast and one slow.

  • System I, the fast one, is intuitive, automatic, emotional and effortless.

  • System II, the slow one, is conscious, deliberate, logical and effortful.
Guess which one we use the most?

Around 98% of our decisions are made by system I – the fast one.

This may come as a surprise as our modern societies often reward logic and reason. But from an evolutionary point of view, it makes perfect sense – it saves time and energy.

Another aspect of rationality is termed loss aversion: the negative effect of losing is felt more strongly than the positive effect of gaining. If we face a choice where we risk loss of something or chance to gain something, the potential gain generally needs to be twice as big as the potential loss for us to go for it.


Tendency to avoid strong difficult emotions
When we experience fear, anxiety, worry, pain, disgust, or any other inner experience that we label as negative, we all tend to want to avoid or at least minimize that experience. This is not rocket science, but in the heat of the moment this can push us to make decisions we're not very proud of later. Such as letting down a friend, not expressing our feelings or dodging a feared phone call.

And when the discomfort on the inside fades away as we do so, our brains and bodies learn that avoiding inner pain is an effective thing – if your goal is to live life with as little pain as possible. But not if you'd like to live a life with meaning and love. More on that later.
When we experience fear, anxiety, worry, pain, disgust, or any other inner experience that we label as negative, we all tend to want to avoid or at least minimize that experience. This is not rocket science, but in the heat of the moment this can push us to make decisions we're not very proud of later. Such as letting down a friend, not expressing our feelings or dodging a feared phone call.

And when the discomfort on the inside fades away as we do so, our brains and bodies learn that avoiding inner pain is an effective thing – if your goal is to live life with as little pain as possible. But not if you'd like to live a life with meaning and love. More on that later.
With no emotions attached – no decisions will be made
Trying to make decisions on things that do not evoke any feelings is hard for us. Partly because those decisions don't seem important enough to spend energy on, and partly because emotions are important guides for us, nudging us in which direction to go.

Without emotions, we are lost. This is why it is hard to choose insurance and why marketing people around the world try so hard to attach emotions to decisions that would not "naturally" have evoked any emotions.
Analysis paralysis
When we are caught up in an endless analysis of pros and cons for every decision we need to make, we sometimes find ourselves incapable of making a decision at all.

This is called analysis paralysis and is more common if we always strive for perfection, or if we're having a hard time separating the small decisions from the big ones. Analysis paralysis tends to increase in periods of high stress and anxiety.
When we are caught up in an endless analysis of pros and cons for every decision we need to make, we sometimes find ourselves incapable of making a decision at all.

This is called analysis paralysis and is more common if we always strive for perfection, or if we're having a hard time separating the small decisions from the big ones. Analysis paralysis tends to increase in periods of high stress and anxiety.
Biases, stereotyping and shortcuts
Our brain consumes around 25% of our body's energy. That is a lot, for such a small organ. Which is why it does its best to minimize energy consumption. Taking shortcuts, jumping to conclusions from past experience and trying to find patterns from random dots. There are many kinds of known biases:

  • Confirmation bias: The tendency to only take in information that confirms what we already know.

  • Hindsight bias: After something has happened, we tend to think that we could foresee that event, that the signs of it coming were obvious. Even when it wasn't.

  • Anchoring bias: A decision is influenced by the first piece of information, the anchor, no matter if later information contradicts it.

  • Fundamental attribution bias: Our own bad behaviors are generally attributed to the situation, whereas others' bad behaviors are attributed to their personality. And vice versa: Our own successes seem to be caused by our splendid personality, and others' successes we tend to attribute to the situation or external factors – such as luck. When we are depressed, this bias is sometimes reversed.

  • Stereotyping: We are prone to draw conclusions about new people we meet, based on previous (real or imagined) encounters with individuals with similar superficial traits (as skin color, gender, clothing, or attributes).

  • The halo effect: We tend to conclude that because someone is beautiful, they are also smart, gentle, and kind.
PART 2
How to improve decision making skills
Luckily, there is also science to help us work around our brains' shortcomings when it comes to decision making.
Letting values guide our decision making
Everyday decision making gets a lot easier if we let our long-term values guide what road to take. Values are a much more reliable source of information than emotions, thoughts, and experiences. The latter come and go in waves, while values can serve as guides over a longer period of time. Also, values can help us confront situations that might bring up difficult emotions – if doing so serves a valued purpose.

To help ourselves, we can ask questions like:

What kind of person would we like to be in this situation?

What would it mean for us in the long run, to decide X or Y?

What would we be proud of when looking back at this situation?

Following our values can help us:

  • Be less prone to avoid difficult emotions

  • Reduce the influence of biases

  • Be less prone to prefer immediate rewards

  • Attach an emotion where there is none

  • Prevent analysis paralysis
Seeking perspective
Another trick to work around biases and decision fallacies is to seek perspective – both from ourselves and others.

  • For others' perspective, ask them what they would have done if they were in your situation. Remember that there is probably no right or wrong answer, just different opinions. If we can approach the others' perspective with openness and curiosity, we are more likely to gain benefits from this process.
  • Seek perspective from ourselves: If we imagine what a future us, five or ten years from now, would think of this decision we can let that wisdom influence our decision right here and now.
Another trick to work around biases and decision fallacies is to seek perspective – both from ourselves and others.

  • For others' perspective, ask them what they would have done if they were in your situation. Remember that there is probably no right or wrong answer, just different opinions. If we can approach the others' perspective with openness and curiosity, we are more likely to gain benefits from this process.
  • Seek perspective from ourselves: If we imagine what a future us, five or ten years from now, would think of this decision we can let that wisdom influence our decision right here and now.
Creating routines
Creating a routine is a way to spend less energy on making decisions that are not as important. If we would wake up each day and reinvent what a day looks like we would consume most of our waking hours making very trivial decisions.

Imagine constantly asking ourselves questions like Should we brush our teeth? When should we do it? Should we get out of bed today? Should we take a coffee break? When should we take a coffee break? Instead, creating routines helps us direct attention to what matters in life. Knowing (= not having to even think about it) that after waking up, I take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and brush my teeth, then I put on my makeup helps our brains both save energy and time, and also creates safety and predictability. Adding extra behaviors to an existing routine is easier than starting a completely new routine.

For example, if we want to increase our daily physical activity, we may want to attach doing 20 push ups after brushing my teeth to increase our chances of that new routine to actually happen. Another example could be checking and answering emails straight after lunch instead of doing it now and then throughout the day (because that entails interruptions and the need to constantly ask ourselves should I do this now?).

What other new routines would you like to set up, or add to existing ones, to save your brain time and energy?
Practicing distance to thoughts and emotions
One of the most powerful skills we can learn is how to notice what's going on on the inside. Listening in to our thoughts, emotions, and bodily signals. It's easy to get so caught up with stuff that we don't have time to notice the messages from the inside.

Cultivating awareness helps us notice our thoughts, feelings, and emotions – and then make decisions from there. Remember that the messages we get from the inside are not facts. They are messages that we can choose to listen to, or just notice and do the opposite.
One of the most powerful skills we can learn is how to notice what's going on on the inside. Listening in to our thoughts, emotions, and bodily signals. It's easy to get so caught up with stuff that we don't have time to notice the messages from the inside.

Cultivating awareness helps us notice our thoughts, feelings, and emotions – and then make decisions from there. Remember that the messages we get from the inside are not facts. They are messages that we can choose to listen to, or just notice and do the opposite.
Using stimulus control
When we see something we want (like cake) it is much harder to resist. This is because our dopamine system (the system that makes rewards so rewarding) is activated and starts to bypass our frontal lobes when a reward is close. If you want to stick to a no-cake diet – do not have cakes at home, try to walk on the other side of the street instead of passing by the pastry shop and encourage your kids to bake something you're not as fond of instead of cake.
Making plans – forming habits
To make it easier to stick to our values, we can make plans for what we want our days and weeks to be about. This makes us more resilient when sudden changes in emotions or situations are pulling our attention away from the target. This tip is related to creating a routine, as in if you do something enough times it becomes a habit and you do not have to think about it (= not spending energy on the decision) anymore.

Science has some solid data on how long it takes to create new daily habits: somewhere between 18 and 254 days with an average of 66 days.
To make it easier to stick to our values, we can make plans for what we want our days and weeks to be about. This makes us more resilient when sudden changes in emotions or situations are pulling our attention away from the target. This tip is related to creating a routine, as in if you do something enough times it becomes a habit and you do not have to think about it (= not spending energy on the decision) anymore.

Science has some solid data on how long it takes to create new daily habits: somewhere between 18 and 254 days with an average of 66 days.
This text was written by 29k chief psychologist Jenny Rickardsson and is based on research by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Dan Ariely, BF Skinner, Phillippa Lally and Steven Hayes.
PART 3
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