We are constantly making decisions, thousands per day by some counts. These decisions can be as small as deciding what kind of clothes to wear to work to deciding whether or not you should get married. And although no one can tell you what to decide, there are ways to instruct you on how to decide.
In the past several decades, much research has been put in to how individuals make decisions and the psychological processes that influence them. This research has revealed insights about proper—and not-so proper—ways we decide. Here are some things to avoid when making decisions.
Confirmation Bias. Put simply, confirmation bias is when an individual looks for evidence to support their preconceived notions rather than let the evidence inform their decisions. Confirmation bias was first documented by the British psychologist Peter Watson in the 1960s. In a series of tests, Watson discovered the people display a tendency to “seek out and pay particular attention to information that supports [their] existing beliefs.”
In the arenas of politics, business or other areas of life where decisions are high stakes, confirmation bias ought to be avoided. It remains preferable to make good decisions that are based on sound information rather than to make decisions that are not.
Groupthink. For quite a while, it was believed that groups remain less prone to making poor decisions than individuals. The thinking goes something like this: Within a group, radical extreme views will be washed out, and the group will form a moderate consensus.
Irving Janis, a Yale University psychologist, found that the opposite remains true: Groups can make bad decisions, too. He dubbed this phenomenon “groupthink.” Groupthink occurs when a group of like-minded individuals make decisions together. Janis found that like-minded individuals will tune out dissent or any reasonable criticism and will therefore make more polarized directions than individuals.
Decision Fatigue. Albert Einstein famously owned one kind of suit. The eccentric physicist was too busy rewriting the laws of Newtonian gravity, among other things, to worry about his clothes. Whether he knew it or not Einstein had avoided a phenomenon known as “decision fatigue.”
Decision fatigue occurs when an individual’s mind becomes too strained deciding about minor or inconsequential things rather than saving his or her “mental energy” for the big things. In short, the idea is that if we structure predictability and routine in to our lives regarding small things, we will then have more mental energy for the big decisions.
Confirmation bias, groupthink, and decision fatigue are all things to avoid when making decisions, but the news is that it’s not all bad. There are other process that shed light on our psychology when we are making decisions. Here are some things that individuals also do when trying to decide.
Emotional Decision Making. In many cases, emotions are associated with bad decision making. To say that an individual made “an emotional decision” is like saying that that person made a bad decision. Yet, according to the American neurologist Antonio Damasio, found that emotions play an important role in the choices we make. Damasio, for example, noticed that when he had patients who had certain parts of their brains damaged, they were unable to make particular decisions. Damasio developed his “somatic marker hypothesis,” which acknowledges the brain’s role in connecting certain emotions with knowledge and logic. Emotions appear to be “hard wired” in to our brains and our decision making.
Prospect Theory. Developed by two researchers, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, prospect theory makes clear that “. . . we think about risks of losing differently from the way we consider the risks of winning.” The theory states that, even if given the opportunity to make rational calculations, we may still choose differently, against the rational calculation, because “. . . losses pack about twice the emotional power of gains the same size.”
As noted, we make many decisions every day. And although no one can tell us what to decide, having the proper information and knowledge can guide us in how to decide. The aforementioned concepts—confirmation bias, groupthink, decision fatigue, emotional decision making, and prospect theory—can help guide our decision making.
Jarrett, C. (2011). 30-second psychology: The 50 most thought-provoking psychology theories, each explained in half a minute. Sydney: Murdoch Books.