Decisions – should we go with our gut feeling?
We make decisions every day in our personal and professional life. We all have been in situations where we had to make a difficult decision when the stakes were high, and there was the risk of negative consequences for others and ourselves.
When making decisions, we choose an option from those available. In our current digital world, we have access to a lot of information, and it can make it harder to decide. Often we may wonder whether it is best to go with our gut feeling or take some distance to be objective and make a rational choice.
When decisions matter, it is best to take time to reflect and consider the options carefully. We need problem-solving skills to improve our decisions and not just rely on intuition to make quick decisions based on our gut feeling. We go with what we feel is right based on our experience, beliefs, and available information.
Intuition can be very helpful when we have a lot of experience in the field. For example, firefighters or medical staff need to make quick decisions in critical situations where lives may be at risk. They rely on their knowledge, expertise and experience, which inform their intuition (Klein, 1999).
However, our intuition has limits. Our brain is not adapted to make decisions in our modern world. Our brain is designed to save energy, and the body wants to preserve it. Making considered decisions requires time and energy. When we are tired or stressed, our attention is reduced, and we narrow our focus and do not consider our options carefully. (Ariely,2008).
When stressed, we tend not to reflect and go with the first option. It is best to take time to restore energy before considering important decisions. We also need to ask questions, consider different perspectives and evaluate the information by discussing ideas with others who can disagree with us to challenge our potential biases.
Obstacles to good decision making
Our brain was designed for survival, which helped our ancestors to deal with challenging situations to survive. They had to make decisions very fast, as it could be dangerous if they did not.
For example, they could not take time to decide whether a sound was a signal of an animal about to pounce or a branch falling. They had to run to survive. Quick reactions save time and energy when in danger, and there is no time to think (Heath and Heath, 2013).
Relying on these shortcuts or heuristics can be helpful in some circumstances. However, in most cases, these can manifest in biases that limit our perspective and can negatively affect our decisions.
When facing an important decision, we need to slow down and take time to reflect to understand the problem and consider the options available to us (Kahneman, 2011). The tendency to go with the first idea may lead us to the wrong conclusion.
Life is unpredictable, and we do not like uncertainty as we want to know what to expect so we can plan. We need to learn to manage the feelings of doubt and apprehension, adjust to change, and develop our strengths to pursue our goals.
The paradox of choice: the context in which we have to decide influences our choices and how we frame the question. It will influence how we interpret the information and view our options. We are not very good at predicting how satisfied we will feel after deciding. When we have too many options, we may find it challenging to choose and whatever our choice, we may feel dissatisfied, wondering if there is a better choice (Schwartz, 2005).
Cognitive biases are systematic errors we make when evaluating information when making decisions. Our brain is designed to save energy, and when dealing with complex situations, it looks for shortcuts and ways to simplify and speed the thinking process to make decisions promptly. These are predictable thinking patterns, and we may have a narrow perspective when making decisions (Kahneman, 2011).
We have inherited them from our ancestors, who needed to think fast to survive in a challenging world. These shortcuts can be helpful in some circumstances, but they can have a cost. Being aware of these patterns of thinking allows us to identify when they are present so that we can take time to reflect and consider alternative perspectives.
Common cognitive biases:
Anchoring: It refers to the influence previous unrelated information can have on our decisions. For example, in experiments, participants were asked to write the last digits of their social security number and then given a task to estimate the cost of an item. Those with a lower social security number guessed a lower price, and those with a higher number guessed a higher price (Ariely, 2008).
Hindsight bias: it is when we view our decisions retrospectively after seeing the outcomes. For example, when the result is not what we expected. There is some risk whenever we make decisions as we do not know how things will turn out, such as when we choose a job, where to live or study.
When evaluating options, we consider a set of criteria to assess which is aligned with our values and gets us closer to our goals.
Confirmation bias: we tend to look for evidence that confirms our hypothesis and disregard information that goes against it. We tend to choose the first option that meets our goal and stop looking for other alternatives.
Status quo bias: refers to the tendency to stay with what is familiar and prevent the potentially uncomfortable feelings if the new situation is not as we expected. For example, when considering changing jobs, you are unsure whether to stay or take the risk and change jobs. It may be that the familiarity of the current job weighs more than the novelty of the new role, so you choose to stay where you are (Kahneman, 2011).
Sunk cost fallacy: is when we do not want to change course from where we are, despite having evidence that it is not working. The feeling of having already invested a significant amount of time, money, and effort can make it difficult to let it go. For example, when we have been working on a project that has been costly and time-consuming, we are reluctant to change course for fear of wasting our time, efforts and funds.
We can discuss the situation with others to gain perspective. When evaluating options, we need to identify the different aspects of each option and decide how important these features are and give them a relative value or how much weight we give them (Heath & Heath, 2013).
So, now that we have looked at some of the factors that can influence our thinking, we can explore ways to improve our decisions.
Strategies to improve decision-making
Pause and take time to reflect: Kahneman (2011) developed the concept of fast and slow thinking. The first one (system one) is intuitive, automatic, and effortless. We are not aware of it, but biases influence us. Slow thinking (system two) requires time to reflect and consider options, which demands more effort. Developing the habit of taking time to reflect will improve our ability to make better decisions.
Think like a scientist: having a method to guide our decision-making process helps us think more objectively about the problem. Adopting a scientific approach will help reduce biases y prevent reacting automatically to the first idea that occurs to us. Developing the skill of considering the options available in a systematic way without jumping to conclusions will enable us to gain perspective.
Develop problem-solving skills: first, we need to identify the problem, look for information to understand it and clarify the outcome we hope to achieve. Then, explore the causes and consider the criteria to evaluate the options objectively. Next, we can experiment and review the result to make necessary adjustments.
Keep goals in mind: Sometimes, we are distracted by the immediate reward, which interferes with our long-term goals. For example, we may want to eat a piece of chocolate cake, but it takes us away from maintaining a healthy diet. Or, we may choose to watch a film, a relaxing activity in the short term, but it delays us from progressing with a project or completing a degree.
Check assumptions: we need to reflect on the situation and consider the information from various perspectives to prevent preconceived ideas from clouding our judgement. It is helpful to ask ourselves, “Do I have experience in this area? Do I have the skills the expertise or not? Am I under pressure from others to favour a particular option?”
Awareness of our beliefs and assumptions allows us to identify potential biases in our thinking.
Plan to review the decision: sometimes, we may have to decide without the necessary information to evaluate the options. We can plan to review our decision and consider any new information to determine where we need to make changes to make improvements.
Ariely, D. (2008) Predictably irrational. The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2013) Decisive. How to make better choices in life and work. London: Random House Books.
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking fast and slow. London: Allen Lane
Klein, G. (1999) Sources of power. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Pink, D. (2022) The power of regret. How looking backward moves us forward. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Russo, J. E. and Schoemaker, P.J.H. (1989) Decision traps. The ten barriers to brilliant decision-making and how to overcome them. New York: Fireside.
Schwartz, B. (2005) The paradox of choice. Why more is less. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.