Recently I was asked to facilitate a course in problem-solving. As I looked over the prepared course content and considered how I might supplement it with my own stories and experiences, I was reminded of one of my favorite books of the past couple of years, Decisive (2013) by the brothers Chip and Dan Heath. It is a highly readable, entertaining, and thoroughly enlightening compilation of research into how we make decisions, and how to make those decisions better. I like the book so much that I decided to make it the topic of this week’s post.
Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that what I like best about the Heath brothers’ books (which also include best-sellers Made to Stick and Switch) is the way they fill their narratives with stories. In this engaging and memorable way, they introduce us in the first chapter to the “Four Villains of Decision Making”:
1. Narrow framing – unduly limiting the options under consideration. The classic example of this is the “whether or not” question. Whether or not to quit a job…break off a relationship…buy a new car. To counter this tendency, the authors say to widen your options. Consider what you are really trying to accomplish that the status quo is not providing. Don’t like your job? Instead of quitting, maybe there are alternatives you haven’t considered that will make it more to your liking. Or what behavior choices could you and your partner make together as an alternative to the all-or-nothing breakup question? Instead of whether or not to buy a car, you could ask, “What would be the best investment I could make right now in my family’s well-being?” Maybe it’s buying a car; maybe it’s saving that money for something else or spending it on a vacation. Whatever the best choice is, it’s not likely to make itself obvious when you’re limiting your choices to “whether or not.”
I found myself engaging in “whether or not” thinking recently as I was weighing the pros and cons of traveling my immediate family over the holidays to see relatives a thousand miles away. The “balance sheet” approach wasn’t helping me; I could see strong arguments both ways. The answer only became clear when I re-framed the question as, “What would be the best use of the resources that trip would require?” Answer: a family holiday at home, followed by a smaller trip at a later date. Broadening my options was the key.
2. Confirmation bias – the tendency to seek out only that information which reinforces what we already believe. This is how politics becomes so polarized: no matter what side of an issue we may be on, we will be more likely to perceive and believe only the evidence in support of our view. (For an excellent New York Times article on this topic, complete with an interactive puzzle that will startle you, click here.) To counter this tendency, the Heath brothers say to reality-test your assumptions by actively seeking out information that might contradict them.
3. Short-term emotion – being swayed by emotions that will fade. In the 1980’s, the president of chip maker Intel was struggling with how best to respond to increasing Japanese competition in memory chips. Although microprocessor chips (for which they’re now best known) were beginning to do well for them, company management had an emotional attachment to the product that had been the company’s bread and butter since its founding. Finally, in a moment of fatigued deliberation, president Andy Grove asked founder and CEO Gordon Moore (of Moore’s Law fame), “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Moore answered, “He would get us out of memories.” Suddenly, the answer was clear, thanks to imagining what decision would be made by someone who was free of their emotional attachment to the past. As the authors say, attain distance before deciding.
4. Overconfidence – placing too much faith in our predictions. Like confirmation bias, overconfidence in our own “rightness” is an innate flaw in most people’s thinking. Given the opportunity, we will almost always overestimate the quality of our decisions in light of future unknowns. Just think about how “unsinkable” the Titanic was supposed to be. So, wouldn’t a reader of this book on how to make better decisions tend to become even more overconfident? Not if you follow the authors’ advice to prepare to be wrong. Be aware of the trap of not knowing what you don’t know. Make your decision and live with it, but be prepared to change course if the future doesn’t unroll the way you expected it to. Excellent advice for anyone whose business model has been undermined by the rise of the internet, for example.
The bolded advice in the above paragraphs forms the acronym WRAP:
Widen your options.
Reality-test your assumptions.
Attain distance before deciding.
Prepare to be wrong.
The bulk of the book is organized around these four principles, with delightful and eye-opening stories along the way. I highly recommend it.
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