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Eleven Myths About Decision-Making

A quick guide to strengthening the skills we need to make decisions we will not regret later.

By Cheryl Strauss Einhorn *

© 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

From HBR.org Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Photos: Shutterstock

 

 

I’ve been studying decision-making for more than twenty years. My experiences have allowed me to identify several deeply ingrained and counterproductive beliefs that harm our ability to make decisions. The most common ones include:

1. I like to be efficient

Many of us think that efficiency means jumping right in and making a decision. But to be truly effective, we need to be clear on the problem we are solving. Rushing can lead you to make a decision based on the wrong factors, which can lead to regret. For example, walking into a car dealership and buying the first car you see might feel efficient, but it may mean that you end up with the car the salesperson wanted to get rid of, not the car that best fits your needs and budget.

2. I’m too busy; I don’t have the time to make this decision

Putting off making a decision is a conscious decision in and of itself. However, intentionally slowing down to focus and do research can help make your decision more effective. Spending a little extra time now will save you time in the end because you won’t have to revisit your decision.

3. Just need to solve this problem at this moment

Don’t get so caught up in the details of a problem that you forget to look at the whole situation. Consider the context. A narrow focus may solve the wrong problem or only partially resolve the issue.

4. This is my decision alone; I don’t need to involve others

Our important decisions involve other stakeholders. If you don’t consider the bigger picture, including others who will be affected by your decision, you will, at best, only partially solve the problem, and you may actually exacerbate it.

5. I know I’m right; I just want data or an opinion to confirm my own thinking

Known as “confirmation bias,” this decision-making flaw has been behind notorious failures such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the NASA Challenger explosion. In each case, data that suggest the proposed course of action was not a good idea was available and should have raised concerns, but groupthink set in, and no one wanted to raise a red flag. To better understand and define the limitations of what you think you know, look for contrary examples and evaluate alternative explanations. These techniques can prevent “frame blindness” and help you avoid seeing what you want to see rather than what may be present.

6. I trust my gut

It’s great to rely on your instincts for small decisions, such as picking a breakfast cereal. When we rely on our gut for high-stakes decisions, however, we are relying on bias and faulty memory. Important decisions benefit from prying open cognitive space to allow for new information and insight.

7. Decision-making is linear 

In fact, good decision-making is circular; it relies on the feedback loop that is created as we gather and analyze information.  At times, we need to go back to find the information we’ve glossed over, gather new information, or even conduct a different kind of analysis. For example, when buying a car, you might think it is enough to do your research and then go to a dealer and negotiate a price, but many dealers have leeway to negotiate, so circling around and comparing offers may get you a better deal.

8. I can pull my ideas together well in my head

Large decisions are made up of multiple smaller decisions. When we try to keep all those moving parts in our mind, we end up relying on a faulty memory and a distracted mind. Our emotions can also get in the way, leading to biased thinking. Keeping a record is an integral part of thinking and analysis; both Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci kept notebooks.

9. I have all the information I need

While we may want to forge ahead, we can improve our decisions —and our satisfaction with them— by investing in a little bit of research and confronting assumptions with evidence. Your best friend might love her car, but that doesn’t mean it’s the car for you. Looking to the experts, such as Consumer Reports, can help you make an educated decision that’s also right for you.

10. I can make a rational decision

Psychologists far and wide, such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, have demonstrated that as much as we’d like to believe it, none of us are rational. We all operate from behind a dirty windshield of bias based on past experiences and feelings.

11. There’s just one way to do this

Whether it’s how the bed should be made, which diet to follow, or how to divide up your retirement account, there’s always more than one way to get to “yes.” We’ve been conditioned away from listening to other voices, staying siloed in our information, our environment and our social circles. But getting outside your routines and patterns can lead to seeing things differently.

Take a time out

Underlying these myths are three common and popular ideas that don’t serve us well: First, that we don’t need to invest time to make good decisions as busy people. Second, that we are completely rational humans, able to solve thorny or high-stakes problems in our heads. Third, that decision-making is personal and doesn’t need to involve anyone else.

All three of these assumptions are false — and problematic for clear thinking and analysis. We are not computers. We are social beings who operate in a community. Before making a decision, we need time for reflection, and an ability to confront unconscious biases.

One way to combat these biases is to put a speed bump in our thinking — a strategic stop to give a time to pause, see the whole picture, and reflect on what we’re experiencing. I call these strategic stops a “cheetah pause.” I came up with this term after learning that the cheetah’s prodigious hunting skill is not due to its speed. Instead, it’s the animal’s ability to decelerate quickly that makes it a fearsome hunter.

The next time you’re speeding toward a decision, let the cheetah pause remind you of the value of taking a strategic stop. This vivid cue can help you see past decision-making myth “trees” and beyond the “forest” of biases that they often rely upon, thus improving your decision-making skill. The right complex decision result — the one for you — is out there in the jungle somewhere, and you have the tools to find it.


*Cheryl Strauss Einhorn is the founder and CEO of Decisive and the creator of the AREA, a system to help individuals, companies, and nonprofits solve complex problems.