Making decisions is part of everything we do, and the better our choices, the better our lives, whether deciding between cappuccino or latte macchiato, or between two potential romantic partners.
In Decisive, brothers Chip and Dan Heath explain how in many situations our decision-making isn’t ideal: we think too narrowly; we’re biased by previous choices, personal values and short-term emotions; and we’re overconfident about our decisions.
The book also illustrates how making poor decisions — or not making decisions at all — can have dramatic effects, as can be seen in the example of Kodak, the once-leading manufacturer of photographic film.
We often think of our decisions as involving a choice between two options. Indeed, we get stuck much of the time trying to settle on whether or not to do a particular thing. But by thinking about decisions as a simple, binary choice, we usually fail to consider other alternatives.
When you find yourself getting stuck like this, consider the whole array of alternative options available to you. Consider teenagers. They often get stuck making decisions: Should I smoke cigarettes or not? Should I go to the party or not? It’s clear that these aren’t decisions that consider alternatives among multiple options. They’re just votes for or against a single option. The decision to go to that party or not, for instance, could be made a lot easier if the teen would consider that they could also go to the movies, or watch a football game.
Another way to help you find your way out of a sticky decision is to consider the “opportunity cost” of your decision. In other words, what will you be giving up by making this choice?
Imagine you’re stuck between buying a fancy stereo for $1000 or a basic, functional one for $700. To consider the opportunity cost, think about what you’d do with the $300 you’ll save when buying the cheaper one. For example: Would you rather have the one with a nice design and great sound? Or the merely functional one, plus 300$ worth of records?
Strangely, we tend to forget about opportunity costs. One study demonstrated that that when people were given a choice between buying a video that they liked for $14.99 or not buying it at all, only 25% didn’t buy it. But when the wording of the negative choice also stated “Keep the $14.99 for other purchases,” 45% didn’t buy the video.
Since the choice itself remained the same in both cases, this example shows that just the faintest suggestion of another alternative is enough to improve our decision-making. We often try to solve a problem by implementing the one option that seems best to us. However, trying out just a couple more can yield much better results.
This is multitracking – or, actively trying out several options simultaneously – and it can improve the decision-making process dramatically. As studies show, exploring several alternatives at the same time actually speeds up the decision-making process.
One reason for this is that by having more alternatives, you’re less invested in any single one, and therefore allow yourself to be more flexible in your opinion. Another is that, when weighing multiple options, you always have a Plan B at hand. If Plan A fails, you have a fallback candidate.
However, you should beware of choice overload, as too many options may paralyze your decision-making. For example, studies have shown that, when offering 6 kinds of jam for sampling on one day and 24 different kinds of jam on another, customers confronted with the choice of 6 jams were ten times more likely to eventually purchase a jar.
So add one or two options – not 24!
Check out my related post: How do you do something you don’t know how to do?