From “I like to be efficient” to “I trust my gut” to “I can make a rational decision,” there are a number of deeply ingrained — and counterproductive — myths we tell ourselves about how we make decisions.
Can you imagine life without your smartphone?
So many of us can’t. We depend upon them for everything from directions to telling us the temperature outside to tracking our daily steps and heart rate. Our “Hey, Siri” culture has conditioned us to equate speed with efficiency and efficacy — and it’s changing how we process information. Our brains have become conditioned to respond with pleasure to the bings, pings, and dings our phones and computers provide.
While Siri and Alexa and Google are great when we’re jonesing for Italian food and want help finding a restaurant, they’re not great, or even desirable, when it comes to complex decision-making. In fact, they help enable a series of counterproductive ideas and reactive behaviors that actually impair your ability to make informed decisions.
For example, let’s say you want to buy a car. Maybe you’re weighing a Prius versus a Crosstrek. Siri and Google can give you all sorts of information, such as fuel efficiency or the current interest rate on your loan. But a search engine won’t know why you’re buying the car, how you intend to use it, or what impact the purchase will have on your budget. Ultimately your decision needs to come from a clear understanding of your needs, values, and goals — information that’s outside the reach of their algorithms.
I’ve been studying decision-making for more than 20 years and have identified a number of deeply ingrained and counterproductive myths that harm our ability to make decisions. The most common of these myths include:
1. I like to be efficient. So many of us think efficiency means jumping right in and making a decision. But to be truly effective, we need to be clear on what we are solving for. Rushing can lead you to make a decision based on the wrong factors, which ultimately will lead to regret. For example, walking into a car dealership and buying the first car you see may feel efficient, but may mean you end up with the car the salesperson wants to get rid of, not the car that best fits your needs and budget.
2. I’m too busy; I don’t have time to give to this decision. Putting off a decision is a decision in and of itself. However, intentionally slowing down to get clear on what you’re solving for will speed up your efficacy. You’ll save time later by spending quality time now to avoid having to revisit the decision. For example, taking a little bit of time to research prices before visiting a car dealership will better help you negotiate the price of the vehicle.
3. I just need to solve this problem at this moment. This is the classic example of “losing the forest for the trees.” Our problems sit in a context. A narrow focus may solve the wrong problem, or only partially solve the problem. If your car breaks down unexpectedly and you rush out to buy a new one, are you considering your needs beyond the present?
4. This is my decision alone; I don’t need to involve others. Our important decisions do involve other stakeholders. Avoiding this bigger picture of who else is affected by a decision can, at best, only partially solve the problem, and may exacerbate it. For example, if your spouse or child can’t drive a stick-shift, do you really want to buy a manual transmission car that no one else in the family can get out of the driveway in an emergency?
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 from the Bay of Pigs to the subprime loan market implosion to the NASA Challenger explosion to the Deepwater Horizon environmental catastrophe. In each case, disconfirming data was available and should have raised concerns, but groupthink set in, and no one wanted to raise the red flag. To better understand and define the limitations of what you think you know, look for contrary examples and evaluate rival explanations. These techniques can prevent “frame blindness” to keep you from seeing what you want to see rather than what may be present. For example, maybe you’ve settled on the Crosstrek in your car search, but you decide to look around anyway. Could your preference for the Crosstrek influence how you evaluate the other cars? Could you be looking to confirm your inclination rather than buy the best car for your needs? To pry open cognitive space, first consider your needs and then look for cars that fit those parameters.
6. I trust my gut. It’s great to rely on your instincts when picking a breakfast cereal. But for larger, high-stakes decisions, when we rely on our gut, we are relying upon bias and faulty memory. Important decisions benefit from prying open cognitive space to allow for new information and insight. You may have set your mind on the Suburu Outback because you have fond memories of your family having one years ago, but some drivers find the driver’s seat uncomfortable. Skipping the test-drive may result in a car that doesn’t work for your long drives.
7. Decision-making is linear. In fact, good decision-making is circular; it needs a feedback loop as we gather information and analyze it and our thinking. At times we need to go back to find information we’ve glossed over, or to gather new information or conduct a different kind of analysis. When buying a car, for example, you might think that doing your research first and then going to a dealer and negotiating a price is enough. But there are many dealers, and they each have leeway to negotiate a price, so circling around and comparing offers may get you a better price.
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 of 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 important part of thinking and analysis; both Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci kept notebooks. We may never be as brilliant or creative as either of these great thinkers, but we can take a page from their notebooks and write things down to create a record of our thinking and our work.
9. I have all the information I need. While we may want to forge ahead, we can improve our decisions — and our satisfaction — 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, particularly if it won’t fit your daughter’s hockey equipment. Looking to the experts, such as Consumer Reports, which does substantive research, 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 through a dirty windshield of bias based on past experiences and feelings. You might think you won’t get taken in by a car dealer, but they are professional salespeople who know how to evoke an emotional response.
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 out of listening to other voices, siloed in our information, environment, and social (media) circles. But getting outside your routines and patterns leads you to seeing things differently. You may always have gone into the dealership to buy cars, but more and more, people are negotiating car purchases online and through texting and email.
Take a Time Out
Underlying these myths are three common and popular ideas that don’t serve us well: First, as busy people, we don’t need to invest time to make good decisions. Second, we are rational human beings, able to thoughtfully solve thorny and high-stakes problems in our heads. Third, 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 community. We need time for reflection, an ability to confront unconscious biases or to consider the bigger picture.
One way to combat these biases is to put a speed bump in our thinking — a strategic stop to give us time to pause, to see the whole picture, and to reflect on what we’re experiencing. Slowing down can help improve efficacy by steering us away from our reliance on these decision-making myths and reflexive behaviors.
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. Rather, it’s the animal’s ability to decelerate quickly that makes it a fearsome hunter. Cheetahs habitually run down their prey at speeds approaching 60 miles per hour but are able to cut their speed by nine miles per hour in a single stride. This allows them to make sharp turns, sideways jumps and direction changes.
In decision-making, too, quality thinking benefits from periods of thoughtful deceleration. These calculated pauses empower you to check and challenge your biases, consolidate your knowledge, include others and enable you to decide whether to pivot and move in a new direction or stay the course before accelerating again.
Here are five questions to ask yourself in these cheetah pauses:
- Which decision-making myths am I relying on to make this decision?
- How will this decision move me toward my life goals?
- Are my feelings related to this decision based on what’s actually happening or do they reflect my learned patterns of behavior?
- What information is out there in the world that could help me make this decision better?
- How can I better understand the perceptions and perspectives of others involved in the decision?
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 rely upon, improving your decision-making skills. The right complex decision result for you is out there in the jungle — and you (not your smartphone) have the tools to find it.
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn is the founder and CEO of Decisive, a decision sciences company using her AREA Method decision-making system for individuals, companies, and nonprofits looking to solve complex problems. Decisive offers digital tools and in-person training, workshops, coaching and consulting. Cheryl has taught for years at Columbia Business School and Cornell and has won several journalism awards for her investigative news stories. She’s authored two books on complex problem solving, Problem Solved for personal and professional decisions, and Investing In Financial Research about business, financial and investment decisions. She is currently working on a book about different decision-making approaches called How You Decide.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.