Does your spouse, child, friend or colleague struggle to make good decisions? Some may be trivial—perhaps picking a restaurant. Others are more critical—whether to stand up to a boss at work. And some are potentially life-altering—should I have surgery? It is hard to watch people you care about get stuck in quicksand over a decision or, conversely, make an impulsive choice without thinking it through. Even though you have the experience and wisdom to help, your advice often is met with defensiveness or indignation…or simply is ignored. I have spent the past decade working with individuals and groups to improve decision-making processes so that they lead to more satisfying outcomes. The problem is that we typically try to help either by listening to the person’s options and telling him which one to choose…or by analyzing the pros and cons of each possible solution. Neither method is effective in most situations. Reason: People faced with decisions are compromised by hidden psychological biases or traps that these methods don’t address. The key is to present your advice and insights in clever ways that break through these mental traps.
Trap: Narrow framing
When you hear the phrase whether or not, you know that a person is stuck between two choices and needs to widen his options. Example: Your brother tells you that his adult daughter just lost her job, can’t afford her rent and wants to move back home. He is torn over whether or not to let her. He wants to say yes but is worried that coddling isn’t in her best interest. What to do… Prod him to run the “vanishing options” test. Ask him to imagine that the option he currently is favoring has just disappeared. This forces people to shift their mental spotlight to consider other options. Say to your brother, “If letting her come back home were not possible, what could you do to help her but still foster her independence?” Multitrack. Research suggests that we make better choices when we consider more than one option at a time. Offer your brother some alternatives. For example, suggest that he loan his daughter rent money for a few months until she gets another job or limit the “inertia” factor by keeping some of her belongings in storage rather than moving them all home. Even if your brother rejects these options, they can trigger others.
Trap: Information overload
People get so mired in the complexities of too many variables that they can’t distinguish what’s important and what’s incidental. What to do… Ask the “best friend” question. Say, “Imagine that your best friend had to make the same decision as you. What advice would you give?” This helps people to instantly cut through the confusion over what factors matter the most. Research suggests that when we consider a decision from a more distanced viewpoint, we automatically place more weight on the more important aspects of a choice. After you hear the response, follow up by saying, “Do you think maybe you should take your own advice?”
Trap: Fear of a mistake
People get paralyzed by the notion that their decision will leave them in an uncomfortable or a regrettable situation. Example: Your elderly parents can’t decide whether they should sell their house and move to a condominium in Florida. Downsizing will be a relief, but they worry about the summer heat, missing the grandkids and feeling isolated in a new environment. What to do… Tell them to “ooch.” Ooch is a blend of inch and scoot. It means testing a decision with small experiments in the real world rather than continuing to assess options over and over in one’s head. For instance, you could suggest that your parents visit Florida in July to see if the heat really is unbearable. If the decision doesn’t lend itself to ooching, then collecting more data should help. For example, they could post a query on a Florida new-residents chat room…or even try to talk to some residents at a Florida condo complex.
Trap: Inflating a trivial decision
You are on vacation, and your spouse or a friend is trying to pick a restaurant for lunch, but he/she can’t decide. The unexpected difficulty makes the decision seem far more weighty and consequential than it really is. Research shows that the more time and effort you invest in a trivial decision, the more likely you are to be unhappy and dissatisfied with the choice you make. What to do… Tell him/her to go with his gut. He should choose the next place that looks good. Although I have found that careful deliberation almost always improves the decision-making process, trusting one’s intuition can be effective in certain instances in which you have had a lot of practice about what works for you and what doesn’t. By now, your spouse has eaten out enough to know deep down what kinds of food and atmosphere are likely to make him happy. Think “and” instead of “or.” Options that seem mutually exclusive very often are not. If your spouse is hopelessly stuck between two places to eat, suggest that he choose both. Propose that you eat your entrée at one and move to the other restaurant for dessert and coffee. Or select one, and plan to return the following day to the other. Even if you never do make it back to the second place, at least you’ve broken the decision-making logjam today and can enjoy your lunch.
When the Decision Could Change a Life
In circumstances where the consequences of a decision are life-altering, pricking the cognitive bubbles that people get stuck in can pay huge dividends… The person is on the verge of making a rash, hyperemotional decision. When people shared with me the worst decisions in their lives, they often occurred during moments of extreme anxiety, lust, greed or anger. Example: A colleague tells you, “I can’t stand working for my boss. I’m going to tell him what a jerk he is.” What to do… Offer to go over the pros and cons. The heat of high emotion is one circumstance when reviewing pros and cons does work well. It postpones hasty action and allows your friend a forum to vent pent-up feelings. Also, weighing the negative consequences—”If you decide to get another job, you will need a recommendation letter from your boss”—helps place your friend in a more rational frame of mind, downplaying short-term emotions in favor of long-term values and goals. The person has already made up his mind and won’t listen to you. Example: Your 20-year-old son tells you that he is dropping out of college to start a software app business. You strongly believe that finishing college is a better first step. He reacts angrily or withdraws whenever you express concerns. What to do… Create a tripwire. This is a secondary decision point set in the future so that if the initial choice isn’t working out, there is a chance to revisit it and limit losses. If your child is determined to drop out, say, “Let’s write down what you hope to achieve in the first year that would convince me that you have made the best possible decision.” At least then you will have your son’s predictions on record, which will give you leverage if he falls short. (On the other hand, that written statement may help you realize that your child has, indeed, thought things through.) The person is facing a major health decision.Example: Your dad is considering back surgery. You have read that many people with back problems don’t need surgery. Your dad feels that there will be minimal complications and a complete recovery. The problem is, people tend to assume that they know more about the future than they really do. Overconfidence makes us lackadaisical about preparing for unexpected possibilities. What to do… Conduct a premortem. The opposite of a postmortem, it’s an analysis of what could go wrong with a decision that hasn’t been made yet and what steps could be taken to avoid ending up there. The point isn’t to scare your father, but to make sure that he has planned for a variety of outcomes. Example: Ask him to consider how six months from now the surgery might make his life worse and what he could do now to forestall that. Could he start an exercise program three months before the surgery to strengthen his core muscles and improve his chances of a smooth recovery?