5 Expert-Approved Ways to Make Smarter Decisions

By
Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Humans may have impressive minds capable of great feats, but experts have known for a while that our decision-making processes are flawed — and often in predictable ways. We easily succumb to all sorts of biases that prevent us from making smart choices.

This week, researchers Jack Soll and John Payne of Duke and Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania released their chapter called “A User’s Guide to Debiasing” from the next edition of the Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making. It’s a treasure trove of useful tweaks that can help lead you down the right path. Here are five insights from it.

1. Do a bit of mental time travel.

It would be nice if we could simply peer into the future to see which decision will lead to the best outcome. Alas, barring a sudden and unexpected rewriting of the fundamental laws of modern physicals, this will not be a possibility anytime soon.

Envisioning the future, though, can be a surprisingly powerful tool. “To apply this strategy,” the researchers write, “imagine time-traveling into the future and learning that your undertaking has failed. For example, a prospective home buyer in the year 2015 might ask ‘Here in 2035, why is my house worth less than what I paid for it twenty years ago?’” A common decision-making problem is failing to have enough of an imagination with regards to what could go wrong, or falling victim to simple overconfidence. There’s evidence that this exercise can broaden your outlook and highlight problems that might not come to mind otherwise.

2. Don’t make an important decision hungry, or sleepy, or angry, or 

There’s no such thing as evaluating a decision “objectively” — human beings are and always will be tugged this way and that by various irrelevant factors. It’s in our nature. That said, research has shown that our susceptibility to bias increases when we’re stressed, whether because of exhaustion, hunger, or a heightened emotional state. The researchers highlight this point with a famous study about Israeli judges making parole decisions:

The judges were relatively lenient immediately following meal breaks, but as time elapsed following each break they denied parole requests with greater frequency, more often sticking with the default decision that keeps the applicant in prison. This inconsistency and arbitrariness could arguably be cured (at least partially) with a simple environmental modification—scheduling more breaks to nudge judges toward readiness.

You’re (probably) not a judge tasked with making life-altering decisions for countless people, but there’s no reason you can’t apply a bit of this logic to your own important choices. Too many of our decisions bear down on us at times when we’re overly taxed and therefore least equipped to be good decision-maker. Delaying a crucial decision, if possible, might be preferable to making it under conditions of stress. Also: snacks. Snacks are always important.

3. Estimate twice, decide once.

Judgement experts are fond of pointing out the wisdom of crowds when it comes to numbers: if you’re trying to determine a given value, from the number of jelly beans in a jar to a major-leaguer’s batting average next year, you’ll often have more luck asking a large number of people and simply averaging their answers than consulting a single expert.

When it comes to decisions like how much time to allot to a project or how much money to invest in a business, you can apply some of this wisdom even if you’re deciding alone. Simply conduct whatever research you need to and make your estimate — and then go through the whole thing again, generating a second estimate. Take the average of the two estimates, and you’ll likely make a better decision than you would if you used either on its own. “By answering the same question twice,” the researchers write, “a person might retrieve from memory somewhat different samples of evidence and provide different answers.” This isn’t as useful as having an employee to compare answers with, but “within-person answers provides about half of the accuracy gain that could be achieved by averaging guesses from two different people.” And you don’t have to pay yourself twice.

4. Don’t make decisions by the seat of your pants — use a “planning prompt” instead.

When it comes to situations in which where the benefits of a good decision lie in the future (reduced weight) but compelling temptations to make bad decisions are all too present (nachos), writing down a specific plan of attack can be helpful. “Prompting the formation and articulation of concrete plans to complete a desired action can help decision makers avoid follow-through failures due to both procrastination and forgetfulness,” write the researchers.

One study they cite, which Milkman coauthored, involved flu vaccinations, which people often neglect to get simply because they are too busy (that is, they let present concerns potentially spoil a future outcome). This often leads to serious — and contagious — health consequences. At-risk study participants received a mailing reminding them they should get vaccinated and letting them know where they could go for a free flu shot. Some, however, were also prompted to write down either the date or both the date and time they planned to get a shot. Members of this group were more likely to actually get inoculated — and the more specific the information they were prompted to provide, the better the intervention worked. Importantly, they weren’t asked to return the written part or show it to anyone — rather, the mere act of writing down a specific plan seemed to commit them to that plan more than a vaguer approach (“I’ll do it sometime next week”) would have. It’s an easy lesson to apply to exercise or weight-loss behavior.

5. Decide in advance

For a wide range of decisions involving self-restraint — again, think food, alcohol, and the like — there’s pretty overwhelming evidence that most people are bad at making healthy in-the-moment choices (if you doubt this, look at the U.S. obesity rate). A little bit of humility is useful on this front: Acknowledging that you lack the willpower to make a good decision can itself be the healthiest decision you make.

In other words, as the researchers write, “decide well in advance of the moment when those decisions will take effect.” Present You, at the supermarket after a meal, is probably a better nutritional decision-maker than Future You, standing in front of the fridge, inexplicably starving at 3 a.m. Allowing Present You to exert a bit of dictatorial power over Future You — “Sorry, Future You, but I don’t anticipate there will be any Rocky Road in the fridge later” — may be smarter than leaving this choice to gluttonous Future You. Sorry, Future You, but it’s for your own good.