A Scientific Approach to Making Better Decisions

How We Can Get Better at Making Decisions

Photo by Albert Dera on Unsplash

We make 35,000 decisions a day so some sources suggest. Yep, you heard it right, 35,000. That’s 2,000 decisions every waking hour. Quite frankly it seems silly that could be the case, however…

You did decide to read this article, sip your coffee, scratch your arm, think about something else, then bring yourself back to thinking about this article. There are 5 decisions in one sentence.

We have a lot of decisions to make.

We Are the Decisions We Make

Decisions are the backbone of our life. They greet us at every cross-road and every hard question has a decision at the end of it. Decisions are, for some (if you’re anything like me), the bane of your life. It takes a considerable amount of time to make a decision and you’ll perhaps spend considerably more time thinking whether you’d made the right decision.

Decisions are hard because you don’t know what’s on the other side, they can sometimes feel vast and daunting. On the flip side, you can spend countless hours obsessing about a decision that has relatively no impact on your life.

We are the sum total of our decisions. Who we decide to be. If you decide to prioritise your health, you are a healthy person. If you decide to prioritise your saving money, you’ll likely have more than someone that spends it on a whim.

Our decisions define who we are as people — which makes them pretty scary.

Decisions are complex in their entirety. There are so many nuances to decisions, so many hidden complexities and unknown outcomes that they perplex the human mind.

When we are faced with difficult decisions, we do possess the ability to slow down and take our time with decision making. This paper defines our ability nicely:

If humans are faced with difficult choices when making decisions, the ability to slow down responses becomes critical in order to avoid suboptimal choices. Current models of decision making assume that the sub-thalamic nucleus (STN) mediates this function by elevating decision thresholds, thereby requiring more evidence to be accumulated before responding.

Although it does leave a few questions unanswered, one of which is, what is a suboptimal decision and how do we know if we’ve made one?

The Accuracy of a Decision (and how you’d know if it’s right)

If you Google “how do you know if your decision is right?” you’ll be greeted with numerous articles. Articles titled: “10 Signs You Made the Right Decision” or “6 Ways to Tell if You Made the Right Decision”.

Those articles will tell you things like:

  • Your gut will know
  • You’ll have thought it through and know the pros and cons
  • You’ll feel uncomfortable, in a good way
  • Confidence will come beaming through

Whilst all these things are helpful to an extent, they aren’t scientific by any means.

In the scientific world and to some extent the business world, theory can be paired with statistical evidence to prove the hypothesis. If we know what we think is true, we can test it, gather the evidence and be fairly sure that we have proved or disproved the theory. With that, we can see if we’ve made the right choices.

For example, you or your company may have just invested in a new platform that should, in theory, improve workplace wellbeing. You could test that theory with creating the hypothesis:

If employees use this platform their workplace wellness increases.

You can create some structure around that hypothesis i.e. true or not based on a 10% increase.

You then find some willing volunteers, get them to try the platform, measure the wellbeing and see if you or your business made the right decision investing. Obviously, ideally, you’d do this before investing but it is still a measure of the appropriateness of the decision.

But is there such a thing as a decision that meets the criteria to prove the theory but still remains a sub-optimal decision?

Satisficing — Satisfactory, What’s a Good Decision?

In 1956, a clever chap called Herbert A. Simon introduced the idea of decision making to a threshold level. It’s the idea that instead of finding the optimal solution for a decision, we instead seek an outcome that would give us a satisfactory outcome.

For instance, let us take the idea of choosing something to eat for lunch.

I have, until recently, had a considerable amount of trouble deciding what to eat at lunchtime, particularly if that involved purchasing a lunch item at a shop. The picture you are in front of the sandwich section at your local sandwich shop.

You are met with a plethora of choices, egg mayonnaise, cheese and pickle, chicken and bacon, and what about the baguettes? Well, there’s a BLT, tuna melt, cheese and ham. So not only have you got to pick a filling, the bread option is now in play. On top of that, you look to the left and there are pasta pots. Do you want pasta or do you want a sandwich? If it’s a sandwich is it soft bread or a crusty baguette. The decisions are endless.

You need to take into account your level of hunger, your current mood (often we pick things we are in the mood for), your history (what is your favourite lunch item from this shop). Balancing all these variables can be quite the challenge to get to the end goal of having a proper tasty lunch, the best lunch experience within the framework of this current sandwich shop. So let’s say we’re aiming for 8.5/10 experience.

Satisficing poses a new dimension. You would probably be satisfied with a 7/10 lunch experience. You’d satisfy your hunger and it would be a pleasant experience. By changing the requirements from 8.5 to 7, the doors of decision making fly open. All of a sudden it doesn’t feel like a needle in a haystack trying to find the perfect lunch option to meet all your needs to get to 8.5/10. Now there are probably 6–9 options that would meet your new criteria, which then means you’ll probably be much quicker at finding that sandwich (which is obviously the chicken and bacon on soft grain bread).

How much time we allocate to decisions

When we move the goalposts from optimal to ‘happy with’ or ‘satisfactory’ the time allocated for certain decisions reduces dramatically. It means you no longer need to spend 30 minutes finding something for lunch, you can spend 3.

A 90% reduction.

That 90% reduction can then give you time to spend on other areas of your life. 10 more minutes on the phone to your parents or pondering life.

It’s a fine balance giving decisions enough time to consider the options but not too much time to overthink and lead to limbo, not making any decisions at all.

For the smaller things in life, you can afford to make short, snappy decisions. The time spent pondering (unless you like to do that) is time spent thinking about things that probably aren’t going to happen.

I’d recently pondered what ended up being a £250 bike purchase, for nearly 2 years. That’s quite a significant waste of my time. I’d wondered whether I’d use the bike, whether it would take up too much room, whether I was just dreaming about becoming someone who cycles or whether I actually would.

Over 2 years I’d probably spent 5 full days thinking about that bike purchase. Which is ridiculous.

Sometimes you just need to buy a bike.

Experimenting with Less

Try it. Try reducing the amount of time you allow for certain decisions. I’m new to this whole thing myself but some of the rules I think could work:

Rule #1: Any purchase under £300 requires 6–9 hours total thinking time over the course of 3 months.

Rule #2: Any purchase under £50 requires 3–4 hours total thinking time over the course of a month.

Rule #3: If contemplating a new habit, try the next day for at least 3 days to see what the results are.

Ideally, we would spend some time weighing up the pros and cons as practically possible with pure thought. Then we’d move into testing the decision and seeing what happens. Now you can’t do that with all elements of life, of course, you can’t test out divorce for example. However, there are elements of life that this suits.

This is for the little decisions that take over your life. The pondering of a new coat, the decision of eating healthier.

Written by

BSc Biomedical Science, studying MSc Behavioural Science. Essays exploring a happy self. www.millennialcareerhealth.com

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