As someone who studies decision-making, I know tons about the neural mechanisms behind several different strategies. But even after spending years studying how people make decisions, I still find myself struggling to make optimal decisions or to find the best solution when faced with a problem. After all, daily decision-making is complicated, and when you add stress to the mix, simple decisions can seem impossible. Further, we’re only human and are prone to falling for the trap set by our own biases and past experiences.
Luckily for us, there are some tips – backed up by cognitive research – we can put in practice to improve our decision-making and problem solving in everyday life.
- Avoid focusing solely on past experience
When making a decision it’s only normal to want to use past experience to guide your choice. Problem is, this can lead to the anchoring effect which is the process by which we give too much weight to a single piece of evidence1. As a consequence, we may be failing to consider potentially better solutions.
To overcome anchoring, ask someone else what they would do.
Can’t decide what to pick off the menu at a restaurant and you feel drawn to the same dish every time? Ask a friend what they are getting and why. Don’t tell them what you are getting first. The new information provided by this external source can help you challenge your initial choice.
- Don’t rush it
No one to ask? Try stepping away from the problem for a while. The initial effect of anchoring will dissipate, and you can be your own critic hours or days later. Rushing to a solution can sometimes backfire.
In a world where we aim for maximum efficiency and productivity, the temptation to make a quick decision is strong, but doing so might steer you in the wrong direction.
We may only consider one aspect of the problem if it’s presented to us a certain way, even if there may be better ways to frame the problem and approach solutions. For instance, a team leader who is having a difficult time managing her employees may focus on keeping a closer eye on the work done by the team. In doing so, the leader may be missing a potentially better solution by asking the team how she can better support them.
Instead of jumping to a solution, write the problem down and think through possible solutions. Revisit the problem sometime in the future, and you might find you come up with different and better solutions.
- Put in the work to learn from failure
We hear it all the time: “Learn from your mistakes”. And yes, we should learn from our mistakes, but recent research shows that failure teaches us less than we think2.
We learn a lot from others’ successes as well as their failures. We also learn tons from our own successes, but not as much from our own failures. One reason for this is that our ego doesn’t like it when we fail.
To learn from failure, we need to first find ways to make ourselves feel less threatened by it. Let some time pass before going over why you failed, or try adopting a growth mindset by focusing on how you can improve through effort and action.
- Question your gut
After a lengthy debate between two cognitive scientists, Dr. Klein & Dr. Kahneman, the verdict is in: trusting your gut only works in predictable situations from which you already had the opportunity to learn3. Two criteria need to be met before you should trust your gut:
- The environment provides you with the opportunity to learn from feedback and contains reliable cues that hint at the right answer.
- The decision-maker has had good opportunities to practice their judgment. According to work by Ericsson, you should have many hours of practice with feedback4.
In other words, if you have faced the same or highly similar situation numerous times in the past and received useful feedback after doing so, your gut is probably pointing you in the right direction. Otherwise, question your gut feelings and look to more objective sources to help make your decision.
- Limit brainstorming
Two heads are better than one, right? Not always.
Although we have all heard about the benefits of getting a group together to brainstorm, no study has found that this process produces more alternatives than thinking alone first before coming together with those ideas5.
To understand why, consider a social effect called groupthink, defined as a phenomenon by which people aim to maintain cohesion and to reach consensus within a group. The downfall of groupthink is that it can lead to a lack of critical thinking or consideration of alternatives. When the pressure to “make the right decision” is high and there is a strong leader in the group, brainstorming can be affected by groupthink and thus lead to suboptimal solutions.
So, next time someone suggests brainstorming to make a decision, instead suggest brainswarming (i.e., writing ideas down instead of speaking them) or even anonymous brainstorming (i.e., each person submits their ideas anonymously in written form). Alternatively, once you’ve thought about your own decision, ask the opinion of one person at a time to get around groupthink.
Good decision-making is an essential life skill, and we’re generally pretty good at it. But there is always room for improvement. Lucky for us, behavioral scientists and academics have our backs. By understanding how our own cognitive biases and tendencies can sway us in the wrong direction, we’re one step closer to being expert problem solvers and decision-makers.
- Furnham, A., & Boo, H. C. (2011). A literature review of the anchoring effect. The journal of socio-economics, 40(1), 35-42.
- Edmondson, A. C. (2011). Strategies for learning from failure. Harvard business review, 89(4), 48-55.
- Kahneman, D., Klein G. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise : a failure to disagree. American psychologist, 64(6), 515.
- Ericsson, K. A., & Smith, J. (Eds.). (1991). Toward a general theory of expertise: Prospects and limits. Cambridge University Press.
- Furnham, A. (2000). The brainstorming myth. Business strategy review, 11(4), 21-28.