Life is full of options. What clothes are you going to wear today? Will you go to the office or will you stay at home? Should you eat that donut, respond to that text, take that job?
But how can we make the best decisions? Does science have any way to guide us to choose the best?
Thanks to psychology, it is possible to predict how good will someone be at making decisions, and a large part of it has to do with certain mistakes that many of us make when interpreting the world around us, known as cognitive biases.
“We study these biases by asking people questions about the decisions they would make in various situations,” explains Wändy Bruine de Bruin, professor of Public Policy, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California, USA. .
Here’s one of those questions:
After a sumptuous dinner in a restaurant, you order a large dessert but, after a few bites, you discover that you are full. Would you be more likely to keep eating or not finish dessert?
If your answer is that you would clean the plate, “that is a decision that many people make in that situation, because it is difficult for them to leave the dessert chosen and paid for.
“Economists call this the sunk cost bias (or lost cost)Well, whether you eat it or not, the investment can no longer be recovered. “
When you feel full, what you really need to consider is whether you are risking a stomachache.
“Your future results will be better if you stop eating dessert.”
Does it sound familiar to you? Maybe you’ve seen a movie that you weren’t enjoying because you had already paid for the ticket, or you stayed in a bad relationship because you felt like you had invested too much to leave.
If so, you were a victim of sunk cost fallacy.
And there are other biases that can trip us up.
Imagine that you go to a supermarket to buy yogurt. There are two: one is 10% fat, the other is 90% fat free. What would you choose?
Of course they are the same, but most people choose the second option, falling into something called“frame effect” -A concept was introduced by the Nobel Prize winner in Economics Daniel Kahneman together with Amos Tversky that is part of the Theory of Perspectives-.
We are often swayed when the same information is presented to us in different ways.
Bruin and her team measure how susceptible people are to such biases and give them a decision-making aptitude score.
And with real-life information from the participants, they found that those who score higher actually tend to make life decisions that lead to better well-being, health, and relationships.
Smarter, better score?
“The ability to make decisions is a separate skill. It is related to intelligence, but being intelligent does not guarantee that you are good at making decisions,” says the expert.
“Rational thinking and intelligence are independent qualities“says David Robson, science journalist and author of” The Intelligence Trap. “
“You can be smart and never acquire those critical thinking skills that are important for rational decision making.”
According to Robson, history is full of examples of smart people who made bad decisions. Not only are they as vulnerable to decision-making biases as everyone else, they sometimes make worse decisions because of their intelligence.
“In specific situations, your intelligence can work against you. And one reason for this is what is known as ‘motivated reasoning’: it is when you are so attached to an idea that you use your intelligence to rationalize it and to tear down any criticism that may contradict your beloved belief. “
But if intelligence cannot protect us from poor decision making, what can?
“Humility”, dice Robson.
“You can measure the intellectual humility of people with questionnaires that show how willing they are to accept the limits of their knowledge.
“Time and time again, you find that more modest people make more rational decisions.“.
So to make the best decisions we need to open our minds and avoid the trap of believing that we have all the answers.
And research shows that there is something else that can be really valuable, even if it doesn’t seem very reliable.
“It’s a kind of knowledge that we have without knowing how,” says Valerie van Mulukom, assistant professor, Coventry University, UK, who studies hunches.
“Imagine you’re driving late at night and visibility is poor. Suddenly something tells you to be careful … and in that instant, a cyclist with no light emerges from the dark or something.
“I hadn’t noticed it, but subconsciously you had caught something, maybe a small reflection in the distance, and you didn’t consciously register it but it triggered the alarms. It forced you to pay attention.”
“Evolutionarily speaking, this is a great system of directing attention..
“Other times, intuition has to do with experience. For example, a patient may present with certain symptoms and his doctor, without knowing the reason, knows what it is, simply because he can rely on so much experience and knowledge of his field.
“Subconscious processing or intuitive thinking is not restricted by our working memory. That means it can make a lot of different associations very quickly, and we don’t have to depend on being able to make those connections consciously.”
So intuition can be a valuable way of drawing on memories or experiences for decision making, but what about emotions?
With or without feeling?
We tend to distrust emotions when deciding, we think that they do not allow us to be rational. But, apparently, this is not the case.
“A series of neurological case studies of patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage shed some light on the role of emotion in decision-making,” says Robson.
“The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown that this part of the brain is very important for the processing of emotion, since it is involved in the formation of physical reactions to events, things like your heart racing, butterflies in your stomach, tension in the muscles when you feel nervous.
“Called semantic markers.
“According to Damasio, what happens is that once you create those markers, when you re-perceive them, they give you an emotion or an intuitive sense of what to do.
“These patients don’t have those kinds of feelings so they don’t have that emotional response to events that guides their decision making.”
Although those who suffer from this type of damage do not have problems with abstract thinking and their scores on traditional intelligence tests are not affected, their lack of ability to process and read their emotions profoundly influences their decision-making.
“Often, as they do not have an emotion that motivates them to take one option or another, they simply remain paralyzed Without making decisions at all or when they do, they tend to focus only on completely irrelevant information. “
While it is true that emotions can lead us astray, they are generally grounded in all our non-conscious awareness, and provide an intuitive signal that perhaps we should not ignore.
“I think about our emotions like a compass“, dice Robson.
“A compass can lead you in the wrong direction if it’s close to a strong magnet. But it tends to be accurate. The same goes for our emotions: they are often useful information to consider alongside all the other analytical issues we considered earlier. to make a decision. “
What if all this fails?
Have you noticed that it is much easier to give wise advice to a friend than to follow that advice yourself?
In fact, there is a name for this phenomenon. Is named solomon’s paradox, in honor of King Solomon, the rich and wise monarch of Israel.
He was known for making excellent decisions for his peopleAs when two women arrived insisting that a baby was theirs and ordered the guards to cut it in two so that each had one half, trusting that the true mother would rather give up her child than watch him die.
But Solomon made terrible decisions in his personal life. He was greedy for his wealth, and he married over 500 women, which unsurprisingly caused him some trouble.
“Solomon’s paradox is an asymmetry in decision-making or the quality of deliberation when you deal with your own problems compared to other people’s,” explains Igor Grossmann, associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who studied why we are often so much wiser when it comes to other people’s business.
Grossmann’s research has shown that Solomon’s paradox comes up over and over again, but there is a way around it.
“When approaching a decision, you can simulate that distance, for example by talking to yourself in the third person or looking at yourself from a third person perspective.”
Instead of saying how do I feel? What should I do? Would you say how would he, she or they feel? What should they do?
“Since it is not natural, not even linguistically, it creates a little distance.”
Saying it out loud could help you see the problem from another perspective, slow down a bit, not react immediately, seek more information, reflect, and make a better decision.
Although it may be worth making sure before there are no people nearby listening to you.
So how can we make the best decisions?
Research shows that, firstly, you should avoid some common biases. That it’s not necessarily about being smarter, but about an open-mindedness and intellectual humility. And that it is worth taking into account your instincts and your emotions.
And if all else fails, follow the advice you give your friends rather than the advice you give yourself.