The Art of Making Good Decisions And the Science Behind It

Image by Waldryano/Creative Commons

We all struggle with decisions every day, some serious, some not so serious. Everything you do is a decision, from leaving the house in the morning to going to sleep at night. It covers the big and the small: from the big decisions about career and family to the small ones like what to have for lunch. So, for something that is critical in our lives, how is it that we can sometimes make bad decisions?

Many of us watched the game last month between the Montana Grizzlies and Northern Iowa Panthers and not only witnessed a momentous win for the Grizzlies but also the internet sensation and local legend of Grizzly player, Willy Pflug. Pflug announced over the ESPN broadcast, seemingly out of nowhere, “I love the Grizzlies, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision.” Like the freshman quarterback Willy Pflug, we tend to be sure of our decision to support our favorite football teams, so why is it that everyday decisions can fill us with nagging self-doubt?

Brainpower or intuition?

So, what does go into decision-making? Is it an art or a science? Intuitive or logical? Do you go with a gut feeling or only make decisions based on thorough reasoning and research?

We tend to think mostly the latter, so it may surprise you to know how many other factors can obscure our ability to make sound decisions. We are more susceptible to emotion, social bias and outside influence when making decisions than we may think. Indeed, the intuitive part of our brain is quite powerful, and some experts even claim that up to 90 percent of purchasing decisions are made subconsciously rather than consciously as we would assume.

Businesses and large organizations tend to ignore the role of intuition in favor of hard numbers and planned decision-making processes. A local example is the University of Montana Wildlife Research Unit, which has laid out a fantastic diagram on their website about the process of decision-making at high levels. It’s an example of a formal, structured type of decision-making, and not everybody has dedicated professors to help them make their decisions, but the thought process is helpful to look at when considering what is applicable to everyday life.

Image by Geralt / Creative Commons

Roll of the Dice

Recently, champion British poker player, astrophysics graduate and television presenter Liv Boeree gave a TED Talk in which she described the things she learned about improving everyday decision-making from playing poker. That’s not so surprising as poker is a high-stakes game of skill and other things, with mountains of money resting on the turn of a card, including the decision to fold or not. Firstly, she described how they are similar in that life is also about skill and luck. A lot of how we end up is based on life’s roll of the dice, and it is critical and humbling to appreciate this fact. Beyond luck, however, we can apply skill and intelligent thinking to our decisions to improve our lot. We can do this, Liv says, by downplaying our intuition and “quantifying” our thinking by thinking in numbers and terms of probability — before making a decision think: “What is the probability that this decision will go the way I want?” If the probability is low, it is likely a poor decision, and you need to revisit your strategy.

Our intuition, she says, is not nearly as effective as we think, as we are vulnerable to all sorts of wishful thinking and bias. While intuition is perfect for small everyday things like deciding whether our car can fit in that parking space or knowing that our friend is mad at us about something (and that we must do something to remedy the situation), it is critical not to over-emphasize intuitive thinking for the big decisions in life. For example, who to marry and what career path to follow.

“A good life is the fruit of a succession of good decisions.” – Alain de Botton, The School of Life

In closing, making decisions is a tough game, and everybody needs a bit of help sometimes. So, don’t be afraid to ask people’s opinions or read up on the subject at hand. When trying to formulate an opinion or make a life-changing decision, it’s critical to gather as much information as you can beforehand. Downplay the role of intuition for big decisions, but don’t be afraid to go with your gut when necessary. There is a lot of science behind the decisions we make, but in the end, good decision-making is an art, and only you can be sure that you’ve made the right decision in any case.