Each of your days involves thousands of decisions, most of them so tiny they pass before you even notice you’ve made them: Definitely wearing the socks with the bears today. Oatmeal or yogurt? Yogurt. Ugh, ignoring this email until I get to the office.
Then there are the ones that keep you awake at night, weighing job offers and career opportunities and wondering whether to rent or buy, start a family or relocate to another city. Complicating matters is that if you have a partner (or work as part of a team), some of your biggest decisions are cooperative ones.
It isn’t just you who feels overwhelmed. We’re bombarded with more information than ever before, which makes big decisions feel harder than they used to.
“In our media-rich, always-on world, many of us are living with an extreme cognitive load,” says neuroscientist and senior research scholar Brie Linkenhoker, MA ’01, PhD ’03. “When our brains are busy keeping lots of things ‘in mind’ or constantly switching attention, our decisions tend toward the default, the easy answer. We choose the comfort food. We spend to make ourselves feel better. We say yes to things that are easy to say yes to and no to things that are easy to say no to."
There’s a better way to make well-considered decisions that are in line with your values and goals. We asked Stanford experts for their insights about how the human brain decides, why we choose the things we do and, most important, how to make good decisions you can live with.
1. Own your biases.
We do a lot of our decision-making essentially on autopilot to free up cognitive resources for more difficult decisions, says Linkenhoker. “So, we’ve evolved in the human brain a set of heuristics, or rules of thumb.” Most of the time, these mental shortcuts work great, and it doesn’t matter so much that we’re not aware of them, such as when we’re driving to work or deciding what to make for dinner. But other times, she says, that awareness matters a lot. “It can become absolutely critical when a police officer is making an arrest, or when a leader is making a decision about a strategic investment or whom to hire.”
Understanding and being aware of your biases can help you make a better, more conscious decision. For example, Linkenhoker says, “People tend not to pay a lot of attention to a swing of $10,000 or $20,000 dollars when buying a house because it’s a small percentage of the whole price, and we tend to anchor our ideas about whether something is a big deal or not by comparing it with that initial number.” Knowing that you’re biased in this situation to think an extra $20,000 is no big deal allows you to stop and ask yourself whether it’s within your budget and whether the house is worth the additional money before you get caught up in a bidding war.
Another common bias, Linkenhoker says, is that of sunk costs: Once you’ve invested time or money into something, whether it’s a sweater or a project or a relationship, it’s hard to walk away, even when it makes more sense to. Recognizing that this bias is operating can help you decide whether it’s time to finally let go.
2. Ask the right questions.
If you’re trying to decide between two jobs, some of the most important questions to ask are about your own metanarrative of what you want in your life, now and in the future, says Linkenhoker. “Outside of the two jobs, what are the things that are most important to me?” Then you can move into asking, “How do these jobs fit with those goals? Are there any things that I really don’t want that I would have to put up with?’”
It’s also important to list the uncertainties and find out as much as you can about them. “The things we know can often loom really large in our decision-making, and things we don't know are easy to dismiss,” Linkenhoker says. So, for example, you’ve been offered a job with a great salary. But it’s a few towns away from where you live and you don’t know what the expectations are for being in the office or how long that commute will really take you during rush hour. If you’re inclined toward taking the job, it’s tempting to just assume these details will work themselves out. But before you jump to accept, do some homework; your resulting decision will be better informed.
3. Run it by a friend.
When you’re making decisions about where to live or what career path to pursue, it can help to turn to those who know you best. “We all create narratives about the decisions we’re making and why we’re making them,” says Linkenhoker. “Sometimes those stories are deeply rooted in who we are and what’s important to us, and other times, they’re kind of faulty, they're based on partial pieces of reality, on fantasies that we have about what our lives could look like.”
If you run some of those stories by someone who will give you honest feedback, she says, you’re more likely to spot the holes in your own story. “It’s good to have people who know you, who can hear and challenge the stories you tell yourself and help you gain coherence in the narrative about who you are and your goals and values,” she says. “That coherent narrative can really help guide you when you’re making tough decisions.”
4. Do the math (and then double-check your gut).
Imagine a disease that’s life-threatening but exceedingly rare; only 0.5 percent of the population has it. And let’s say there’s a test that’s 98 percent accurate at detecting whether a person has this disease, with only a 1 percent false-positive rate. Now let’s say you get screened for it during a routine physical, and you test positive. That 98 percent figure might inspire a decision to quit your job, sell your stuff, and hit the road in a retrofitted VW bus. Not that we’re saying this would be a bad thing. But hang on a hot second: As long as the test was random (and not prompted by symptoms or another factor), there’s only about a 1 in 3 chance that you actually have the disease.
In his undergrad class Introduction to Probability for Computer Scientists, computer science professor Mehran Sahami, ’92, MS ’93, PhD ’99, wants students to learn more than just formal probability. He also wants them to understand how their intuition can lead them astray.
The reason the results in above example are misleading has to do with the base rate. As Sahami explains, “The condition is so rare—so many [people] don’t have the disease—that even at a 1 percent false positive rate, that’s enough to swamp the test.” The math is pretty simple to work out, once you override your gut reaction and take a closer look at the numbers.
5. Remember that good decisions aren’t just about the numbers.
Many of the biggest decisions you make will likely affect other people. As a member of the advisory board for the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Sahami spends a lot of time thinking about the ways computer science and probability are increasingly being used to make structural and systemic decisions in society. One example: using algorithms in the criminal justice system to help determine who will get out on bail. He cautions that trying to optimize your decision-making can skew your thinking. “One of the issues to consider is how [your decision] will potentially impact other people,” he says. “Think about what value that has in terms of your belief system and what you’re trying to achieve, and incorporate that into your decision-making.” Whether that’s a job offer that would relocate you and your partner across the country, or company practices that make you think you should be a corporate whistleblower, thinking about your options within this larger ethical frame can help you clarify difficult decisions and feel comfortable with their consequences.
6. Be ready to reevaluate.
Another common mistake, according to Sahami, is the tendency to misframe the probability of linked events. People will often think about the probability of something as if it happened in isolation, rather than realizing when another event has affected the outcome. Mathematically, the situations are pretty different, he says.
For example, when you buy lottery tickets, as the prize increases, people who might not have otherwise bought tickets often do, perceiving the value of the game to be higher. But as more people do this, Sahami explains, the probability changes. There’s a greater chance that multiple people will have winning tickets. That means even if you do win, you’ll be more likely to split the pot, something you ought to consider when deciding to buy a ticket.
Or, when you bought your car, there may have been a high probability you’d get 100,000 miles out of it. But once the car has been in an accident, the probability that it will reach its original predicted life span has changed—something you should take into consideration before you decide what damage to repair.
7. Don’t make assumptions.
When you’re struggling to make a decision as part of a pair or a group, don’t assume you know another person’s perspective. Lindred Greer, an associate professor of organizational behavior whose research explores how teams make decisions, found that relatively small misunderstandings can escalate into wildly dysfunctional decision-making simply because people make assumptions about the behavior of others.
At a Bay Area start-up that Greer studied, meaningful decision-making regarding the company’s future was being affected by a petty disagreement about whether the kitchen fridge was stocked with Coke or Pepsi. “It became an issue at team meetings,” she says, “until one of the more savvy members asked why, and kept asking.” It turned out that the business team felt undervalued in comparison with the engineers, and saw soda as a small way to push back. “By asking why, [the team] was able to surface the real issue,” Greer says, and then change company culture to make the business team feel more integral.
Bottom line: Before you make a decision based on where you think other people are coming from, check to make sure you’ve got it right. It’ll help you get to a decision that works for everyone.
8. Incorporate diverse perspectives.
“If everyone thinks and acts the same way, you’ll all make the same mistakes,” Greer says. Case in point: Greer and a fellow researcher looked at data from people who had climbed Mount Everest. Some teams of climbers were composed of people from the same country, while other teams were more diverse. In general, she found that the homogenous teams made riskier decisions. And although they were somewhat more likely to summit Everest, she says, their members were also more likely to die along the way. “Collectivism blinded people,” she says.
It’s an extreme example, but it reveals something important: Diverse viewpoints lead to better decisions because they incorporate different areas of expertise and different ways of framing—and solving—problems. Greer is quick to point out that teams have greater success when their leaders know how to use that diversity by uniting people through a common vision. If you’re a team leader, “hire for diversity, but make sure you know how to utilize it well,” she says. “Provide a common vision, and articulate goals so that people are able to see how to work together.”
If you’re part of a team that’s not very diverse and you’re not in a position to change it, asking constructive questions of the group (such as “Why do you think that will work?” and “Is there another strategy we should consider?”) can help group members check their assumptions and arrive at better decisions.
9. Take turns on special ops.
There are times when a decision-making hierarchy is necessary, Greer says: One person is the decider, and the others follow. Ideally, that hierarchy will adapt to the context. One of the best examples of this, she says, is the Navy SEALs: During a mission, they have a clear chain of command, but when it’s time to debrief, “they take their stripes off at the door.” The idea is to value each team member’s experience and expertise equally when evaluating past decisions and determining how to improve. By deemphasizing rank in those meetings, she says, the SEALs create an environment where people feel more welcome to speak up, which leads to better future decisions. In a business setting, she says, good leaders will use body language to communicate the shifting balance of power, leaning toward the group when they’re taking charge and then leaning back to listen so the whole group can evaluate a decision.
What’s good for missions and management also applies in other scenarios. Sometimes in a partnership, Greer says, there are situations when one person needs to make decisions and the other needs to follow. Halfway up a flight of stairs would not be the ideal place to discuss the best way to move your new washing machine into your apartment, for example. But for good decision-making that power dynamic needs to alternate, with partners trading off in the leadership role and sharing responsibility for other decisions, like which appliance to buy.
Mike Vangel is a writer in Minneapolis and a former assistant editor of Stanford.