We are the products of our decisions. From big ones like marriage and career path to smaller everyday choices like what you eat and drink, our decisions inform the substance, impact, and quality of our lives.
As important as they are, what has been surprising to me is, as a society, how poor we are at making good decisions. As Chip and Dan Heath, in their fascinating book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, remind us:
“If you study the kinds of decisions people make and the outcomes of those decisions, you’ll find that humanity does not have an impressive track record. Career choices, for instance, are often abandoned or regretted. An American Bar Association survey found that 44% of lawyers would recommend that a young person not pursue a career in law. A study of 20,000 executive searches found that 40% of senior level hires are pushed out, fail, or quit within 18 months. More than half of teachers quit their jobs within four years.
Business decisions are frequently flawed. One study of corporate mergers and acquisitions–some of the highest stakes decisions executives make–showed that 83% failed to create any value for shareholders. On a personal front, we’re not much better. People don’t save enough for retirement. Young people start relationships with people who are bad for them. Middle aged people let work interfere with their family lives. The elderly wonder why they didn’t take more time to smell the roses when they were younger.”
Why, with so much technology, generational wisdom, and other resources at our disposal, do we struggle to make good decisions? Surprisingly, as the Heath brothers so clearly unpack in their book, making the right choices has little to do with analysis (we’re pretty good at the data) and lots to do with process (the way we approach decisions). Specifically, the authors reveal four consistent obstacles to sound decision making:
1) Narrow Framing. One of the major regrets in my life is the sloppy way I approached college selection during my senior year in high school. My parents were almost completely uninvolved (hard to imagine today, but pretty common back then) and I had no sense of urgency or appreciation of the weight of my decision. So other than applying to Princeton University as a long shot (I didn’t get in), my only other consideration was a small liberal arts college 150 miles from my home that had recruited me to play football. I had never heard of the college, and after one weekend visit during the winter, I committed without investigating any other colleges. And although I had a generally positive experience in both academics and sports, after more than 35 years, I still regret that I never considered the numerous other options available to me.
My experience is an example of narrow framing, which is the tendency to define our choices in binary terms: “Should I do this, or should I not?” Like my college selection, narrow framing virtually ignores all the other alternatives that may exist. The authors cite one study that showed that having just one more option lowered the failure rate of “yes or no” decisions by almost 50%.
2) Confirmation Bias. As the Heath brothers put it, “Our normal habit in life is to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief.” You see it everywhere, in sports (what one side slams as a “horrible call” the other views as completely obvious), politics, business, even entertainment. Do you remember the TV show “American Idol” when, early in the season, contestants had to audition in front of the judges? Many of these unfortunate young people had been told their entire lives by their parents how talented they were only to be crushed when Simon Cowell told them the hard truth that they were tone deaf. As rational as we think we are, when we want something to be true, people will focus exclusively on the information that supports their intentions and ignore the rest, no matter how compelling. We all do this!
3) Short Term Emotion. Growing up in car sales, I was trained to harness the power of emotion in getting customers to make a buying decision before leaving the dealership. From the excitement of the test drive to the allure of the new car smell, good salespeople understand that people buy on emotion first, then justify with logic. The same is true in political campaigns, charity appeals–anything that involves persuasion and creating desire. But all too often, when the excitement wears off, disappointment and regret set in. (Which is why, 20 years ago, we instituted a 5-Day money back guarantee in our auto dealerships.)
4) Overconfidence. Sometimes, our predictions about how things will turn out leave no room for error. In the book, the authors tell the story of the Beatle’s first audition for Decca Records in 1962. After seeing the band perform more than fifteen songs, Decca’s lead talent scout wrote to Beatle’s manager Brian Epstein, “We don”t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out; four piece groups with guitars… are finished.” Talk about a bad decision! I wonder if that talent scout still had a job when the Beatles’ very first single went platinum less than two years later. As the authors put it, “The future has an uncanny ability to surprise. We can’t shine a spotlight on areas when we don’t know they exist.”
Each of these four pitfalls of decision making have little to do with accurate data or sound analysis. Instead, the key to making better decisions is having a system: a consistent process for approaching choices, big and small. In my next post, I will share the author’s four-step process that, while not guaranteeing you’ll be right every time, will drastically improve your chances.
How would you rate your success at making good decisions? What’s the best and worst decision you’ve made in your life? Which one of these four decision pitfalls resonates the most with you?