About Decision Making

Arrows with plan A plan B and plan CDecision making is hard despite the fact that we are the most intellectually advanced species on the planet. Making decisions does not come easily or naturally for humans. The reasons are: 

Trial and error thinking. Our caveman fore-bearers certainly could think and innovate, but their technique and our technique generally is that of trial and error – just give it a try and, if it doesn’t work, try something else. Human brains have evolved more to solve problems by experimentation than by logic. We have the cognitive ability to think logically and make decisions, it just doesn’t come naturally for us.

We are not taught how to make decisions. There are no courses or instruction below the college level that teach the fundamentals of decision making. There are very few undergraduate and graduate level courses and these tend to be focused on business applications. We learn this important life skill solely by observation and trial and error. A high school senior may be skilled in calculus but be unable to effectively decide which college to attend. A college graduate may be unable to clearly analyze the risks and rewards of various career options. There is a need for basic decision making instruction within the educational system. Until that occurs, informational sources such as this website will need to suffice.

Our brains are physically unable to analyze large quantities of data. Psychologists tell us that we are capable of holding and comparing only about seven pieces of information at any one time. So, if John goes to the grocery store to buy 10 items without bringing a grocery list, the chances are that he will forget about 3 items. Some people will remember 8, some people will only remember 5 but, in general, 7 is the maximum pieces of information that we human beings can hold in our brains at any one time. Yet people often make major decisions involving dozens of factors in their head, without writing anything down or using simple decision making tools.

Here is an example: Mary is planning to buy a new car. She is considering Ford, Chevrolet, Honda, Toyota, Mazda and Hyundai. She needs to consider price, resale value, safety, reliability and gas mileage. That is 5 criteria for 6 brands; 30 pieces of information. No one can do this in their head.

It’s hard when it’s personal. When we are making a decision that affects us personally it is very hard to remain objective and think clearly through to the best solution. Perhaps you have had a friend who was trying to make an important decision. You knew exactly how she should decide. This is because it was not about you personally, you were detached and objective. The more important the decision is to us, the more likely we are to be afraid of making the wrong decision. This “outcome apprehension” will inhibit clear thinking and good decision-making.