But there are lots of these choices to be made. In fact, according to author Noreena Hertz in her book Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions In A Confusing World, “we have to make up to 10,000 trivial decisions every single day.”
Other decisions aren’t so small. Other decisions can affect our health, career and relationships.
Decision-making is further complicated by data. A whole lot of data. “For this is the age of data deluge,” Hertz writes.
“A New York Times Weekly Edition contains more information than the average person in the seventeenth century was likely to come across in their entire lifetime.” Add to that social media, countless websites, TV and print ads, and a slew of other sources, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed, even paralyzed, very quickly.
In her important book Hertz presents 10 practical steps for helping us make these decisions – from a smarter, more informed perspective.
She also shares research findings and stories about the cognitive errors all of us make, even the experts, which jeopardize our decision-making.
Explore Your Decision-Making
Figure out how you make decisions in the first place. Do you consult others or just yourself? Are you a quick decision-maker or do you prefer taking your time? Who typically influences your decisions? Who do you trust in general?
Take in the Whole Picture
In a 2005 experiment cognitive psychologist Richard Nisbett showed American and Chinese students a set of images, such as a car on the road, for three seconds each.
The American students focused on the focal object, mostly ignoring the background. The Chinese students, however, took longer to focus on the focal object, and even then, their eyes moved around the image, taking in the surroundings.
Now imagine there was a snake on that road. Would you be able to see it? It would definitely help you figure out the next step to take.
In order to make better decisions, we need to examine the entire landscape, instead of hyperfocusing on the obvious or shiniest.
For instance, numbers only give you one part of a story, according to Hertz. Find out what the numbers aren’t telling you.
Also, pay attention to the form your information comes in. “Is it too reductionist?”
For instance, ask yourself what that PowerPoint slide or executive summary is missing. Consider what information you’re not being given. Maybe there’s an in-depth report you can find.
We need to look beyond big fonts and bold headlines. The information you need may very well be in the details, and the facts that haven’t been presented.
Seek Opposing Information
We often seek out information that just confirms our beliefs and biases. Everyone is prone to this kind of cognitive error, according to Hertz.
“In fact, it turns out that we actually get a dopamine rush when we find confirming data, similar to the one we get if we eat chocolate, have sex, or fall in love.”
Instead, actively seek out information that challenges your ideas and proves you wrong.
Again, becoming more observant is key for making smarter decisions. Mindfulness is a great way to learn to focus on the entire landscape and sharpen your ability to pay attention.
As Hertz writes, mindfulness helps us “get better at opening our eyes to what we might otherwise overlook.”
(This blog offers many mindfulness techniques.)
Employ a Challenger-in-Chief
Whether at home or work, enlist the help of someone who will challenge you. This person can help you question your own biases and make sure you’ve gathered enough information and aren’t simply confirming what you already know.
We tend to put experts on a pedestal and take their words as gospel. As Hertz writes, “Bludgeoned by their stats and theories, pacified by their institutional affiliations and the letters after their names, reassured by their self-confidence, we surrender our intellect, instincts and power to them.”
In fact, one experiment found that when participants were pondering a financial expert’s advice, it was as though the decision-making parts of their brains just switched off.
But experts get things wrong. All the time.
Consider the following statistics: Doctors misdiagnose patients one in six times. In the U.S. and Canada, 50,000 hospital deaths every year may be prevented if the cause of illness was accurately identified.
A study of 82,000 predictions by 284 experts over 16 years on everything from the future of the USSR to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait found that experts weren’t any more accurate than a monkey who randomly put a pin on a board.
In other words, experts are human, and as such, they make mistakes.
Experts also falsify data and other parts of their research. “Eighty-one percent of biomedical research trainees said that they would be willing to select, omit or fabricate data, to, among other things, “win a grant,” Hertz writes.
A recent study also found that over 40 percent of the best-designed, peer-reviewed papers in prestigious medical publications included misrepresented findings, mainly because of funding pressures.
So if your decision requires an expert, what can you do?
For starters, if you’re asking an expert for objective advice, “find out in advance whose payroll they are on, and what conflicts of interest this may present.” If they’re pushing a certain product, stock option, medication, whatever, ask them directly if they have a conflict of interest or any kind of benefit to gain.
Also, ask experts whether they’re up-to-date on the latest research and how doing so has changed their thinking. After a well-renowned gastroenterologist told Hertz, very proudly, that he didn’t have the time or see the need in familiarizing himself with the newest research, she wisely “quickly ran.”
Similarly, be aware of experts who are cocky. Arrogance doesn’t equate to competence. In fact, research has shown the opposite. Look for experts who are curious and open, and not driven by ego.
Seek out several experts before making a decision. Find out the experts’ track records. For instance, if you’re having an operation, ask the surgeon how many times they’ve performed this specific surgery and how many times something went wrong.
Become your own expert. Immerse yourself in the literature and research. This way you know the right questions to ask, and you understand an expert’s responses and recommendations.
If you’re not so good at the technical lingo, pick someone you trust to act as a translator.
Making decisions is not easy. And it takes time. Empower yourself to become a better observer, find opposing information, question experts, and become an expert yourself.
Tartakovsky, M. (2013). 6 Reliable Strategies for Making Smarter Decisions. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 17, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/6-reliable-strategies-for-making-smarter-decisions/00018230
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 20 Nov 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.