3 Science-backed tips to help you with decision making

We’re constantly bombarded with choice or shall I say overwhelmed by it - be it deciding what to eat, what to wear, reading endless Amazon reviews before deciding what product to buy or my top favourite watching 1 hour of trailers before deciding what movie to watch next - I actually almost burned the flat down once when I forgot I had dinner in the oven, I was too busy flicking through trailers! 

On a serious note, these actions deplete our energy and they are not even the hard choices…imagine what happens then! To make good decisions you need both good prediction and good judgement. The process of decision-making is involved in several parts of the brain, one of them being the frontal lobe which is involved in planning, reasoning, and judgement- in short, weighing the pros and cons. When it comes to hard decisions, most people tend to be risk averse and avoid conflict for as long as possible.

So why is this happening?

According to an article from Harvard Business School: “...20 years of research conducted by Columbia University’s Tory Higgins, it might be more accurate to say that some of us are particularly risk-averse, not because we are neurotic, paranoid, or even lacking in self-confidence, but because we tend to see our goals as opportunities to maintain the status quo and keep things running smoothly.” 

The rest of us, who decide to deal with conflict, see our goals as opportunities to make progress. As such, you end up better off, because you’re not particularly averse to risky choices when you hold the potential for rich gains.

Furthermore, according to Leon Festinger’s (1957), we have an inner drive to maintain balance between our attitudes and behaviour and this phenomena is called “Cognitive Dissonance”. During the decision-making process, we often feel the balance is broken, and we may experience a feeling of psychological discomfort which implies we must either alter something in order to provide harmony again, or avoid dealing with certain situations, which may lead to Cognitive Dissonance.

If you’re someone who struggles with decision making or you generally want to become better at managing the hard choices in your life, here are a few tips that can help you become better at decision making and reduce the discrepancy between actions and emotions.

1. Beware of cognitive biases

In other words, be less certain. More often than not, we base our decisions, at least partly, on emotion; the process of decision-making involves the amygdala which deals with emotions, and the hippocampus that deals with memory. Decision-making is seen as a link between memory of the past and future actions and it is closely linked with learning and memory. (Fellows, L. K. (2016). The Neuroscience of Human Decision-Making Through the Lens of Learning and Memory. In Behavioral Neuroscience of Learning and Memory (pp. 231-251). Springer, Cham.)

Generally speaking it is a lot harder to look at your particular issue through a rational filter so we unknowingly use irrational lines of thinking—also known as heuristics—to justify our decisions; which prevents us from investigating our options as fully. These mental shortcuts not only short circuit our objective thinking, but give us false confidence in our bad choices, as Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are

According to Kahneman, overconfidence hinders our ability to make better decisions and based on my own experience, I know this to be very true.

So next time you’re faced with having to make a hard decision and you’re confident you know the answer, a good practice would be to go through various outcomes and perhaps come up with different solutions aka contingency plan in case your desired outcome might not come to fruition.

Talking about cognitive biases, I absolutely love the guys from My Cognitive Bias. They’ve created a Chrome extension that once added to your browser will give you different biases explained and with a source to either of the scientific explanation, which is really cool. To give you an example, Zero-sum thinking is:

a cognitive bias that describes when an individual thinks that one situation is like a zero-sum game, where one person's gain would be another's loss.

My favourite bias has to be the “Spotlight effect“ - I am sure you’ll relate to it - is the phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are. Being that one is constantly in the centre of one's own world, an accurate evaluation of how much one is noticed by others is uncommon.

2. Put options on par 

According to Ruth Chang, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, when we commit to two good options, every possible decision will likely result in a satisfying outcome. 

In her TED Talk, Chang encourages people to “put their choices on a par,” meaning that in the presence of good options, we should weigh each outcome equally and focus on what we'll gain instead of what we could lose.

When we face hard choices, we shouldn't beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us


Most often than not we tend to over-analyse the pros and cons and as a result we’re left paralysed by indecision. It’s sometimes easy to forget that these difficult choices can provide us the exact opportunities we might crave. 

Easy choices, hard life; hard choices, easy life - Jerzy Gregorek

I came across this quote in a Tim Ferriss podcast and it really resonated with me. Based on my own life, I knew that when I was forced to make a hard choice, although in the moment it felt horrible, and you go through a thought process where you weigh the pros and cons, not to mention the emotional rollercoaster, what usually follows next is a great sense of relief. And the exact opposite is true for when we take the easy route and avoid dealing with conflict or we avoid taking responsibility for certain aspects in our lives. When you choose to hide from conflict, be it at work or in your personal life or choose the easy option you will end up being dissatisfied.

Chang goes on saying if there’s always a best alternative, “then that's the one you should choose, because part of being rational is doing the better thing rather than the worse thing, choosing what you have most reason to choose.”

When you’re implementing these tips and making choices, take a second to embrace the uncertainty, too. That's the beauty of life. Plus, consider for a second that most times we kid ourselves into thinking that we have certainty in our current situation. In reality, that’s a false certainty created by us being in our comfort zone.

3. Eliminate as many choices as possible


As Jeff Haden puts it The motivation myth, the fewer choices you’re forced to make the smarter the choice you make when you need to make a decision. This is because your brain will be free from the minutiae of hundreds of decision and you’ll free-up space for the ones that really matter. Researchers from Cornell University estimate the average adult makes around 35,000 conscious decisions each day, more than 221 on food alone! (Wansink and Sobal, 2007)

Based on this information, it’s no surprise that by the time it gets to making hard decisions we can become impulsive, even reckless as we’ve wasted most of our energy on unimportant decisions. Typically the fewer choices we are forced to make, the smarter the choices we can make when it comes to something important.

It’s also a good idea to use the first part of your day to make important decisions and tackle the hardest issue first. By doing that, chances are, you’ll approach your most consequential decisions with all the your cognitive resources that they deserve.

Remember the choice is yours

We often get sucked into a whirlwind of emotions when it comes to hard decision but ultimately what you need to remember is that the choice is yours and there’s a lot of freedom in that. We often might forget how lucky we are to be able to choose, a lot of people might not have this privilege.

Owning your choices and the outcomes they generate is one of the ways we can have some type of control in our lives.

So next time you’re faced with a decision that might seem hard, remember to be brave enough to own that decision rather than shying away from it in the hope the outside world will make it for you 😉


Author: ionela spinu

Photo credit: Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

ionela Spinu