How Do You Make Major Decisions?

When faced with a major decision, like marriage or a career change, how do you go about it?

The time-tested, logical way is to make a list of pros and cons.  That can work well, but is there a better, more scientific way of decision-making?

See if these ideas help —

One approach is to make sure you have plenty of alternatives.  In the early 1980s, business school professor Paul Nutt studied real-world decisions.  He discovered decision-makers actively sought out a new option beyond their original choices in only 15 percent of their decisions.  In a later study, only 29 percent of organizational decision-makers considered more than one alternative.  Follow-on studies showed the weakness of this approach — Professor Nutt and others found a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of a decision.

So how do you expand your options?  Research suggests diversifying the group of people helping to make the decision.  Social psychologist Samuel Sommers studied this with a series of mock trials in which juries evaluated evidence from a sexual assault case.  He discovered racially mixed juries performed better than entirely white juries; homogeneous groups tend to reach decisions too quickly.  (There is an interesting twist to this — diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, but were also far less confident in their decisions.  Go figure.)

Assuming you’ve amassed a list of alternatives, what’s next?  One approach is known as scenario planning.  Imagine a different future for each alternative: one where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird.  This forces both a deep analysis of everything that could impact the alternative, and also forces multiple  stories — something we rarely think about.

Psychologist Gary Klein has developed a variation he calls a “premortem.”  “Our exercise,” he explains, “is to ask planners to imagine that it is months into the future and that their plan has been carried out.  And it has failed.  That is all they know; they have to explain why they think it failed.”

If, after all this, you are still having trouble with that decision, you could try a value model — a more powerful version of the pro-and-con list.  List the values that are important to you, give each one a numeric measure or “weight,” then grade each scenario on how it matches your values.

The bottom line is there are more sophisticated decision-making tools than simply making a pro-and-con list.

For a more detailed explanation, read “How to Make a Big Decision” by Steven Johnson ( ).  The artwork came from that site.

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