Being Decisive: Avoiding Common Decision-Making Traps

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Every day you’re faced with dozens of decisions—some big and some small. There’s no magic formula for making good decisions. Some people use a simple pros and cons checklist, while others try to weigh the best-and worst-case outcomes.

However, in their recent book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe the “four villains” of decision-making.

Narrow Framing

Narrow Framing means that you are artificially limiting your number of choices. Sometimes when you encounter an issue or problem, you feel the need to make a choice. You lock yourself into an either/or frame of mind. Perceived urgency or heightened emotion can make this pitfall even worse.

In the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, they call this a “sucker’s choice”–you’re forcing yourself into an either/or choice when a both/and option might be available. An example is thinking either we can pursue a new business line, or we can invest in infrastructure. By taking time to problem-solve, you might be able to find a way to do both.

The authors of Decisive note the results of a study that shows that when making decisions, corporations only explore alternative options 29% of the time.

Confirmation Bias

You might not even realize you’re doing it, but it’s human nature to gather facts that support the outcome you really want. An example of this appears in the book:

Smokers in the 1960s, back when the medical research on the harms of smoking was less clear, were more likely to express interest in reading an article with the headline “Smoking Does Not Lead to Lung Cancer” than one with the headline “Smoking Leads to Lung Cancer.” (To see how this could lead to bad decisions, imagine your boss staring at two research studies headlined “Data That Supports What You Think” and “Data That Contradicts What You Think.” Guess which one gets cited at the staff meeting.)

An easy way to combat this tendency is to listen to (and consider carefully) opposing viewpoints.

Short Term Emotion

Humans have a tendency to make the decision that feels good in the short-term. A 2012 article from Psychology Today even has a name for this bias: “Temporal Myopia.” Psychologists asked people if they would rather have $100 now or $120 a month from now. Most people responded with a preference for the $100 today. Yet, when reframed as “would you rather have $100 in 12 months or $120 in 13 months,” most people take the $120. Even though in both cases, you gain $20 by waiting an extra month, the timeframe distorts the decision-making.

Beware of everyone’s innate bias toward immediate gratification. This makes people more likely to make quick and irrational decisions, since even the relief from the stress of decision-making causes people to want to take quick action when delays may be better.


Past success can make you better informed, but it can also lead to mistakes. Many leaders got where they are because they have made good decisions in the past. However, that can lead to complacency in examining facts and data. Just because something proved to be true in the past, doesn’t mean it will still provide proper guidance for future decisions.

Before deciding, be sure to ask yourself–what might I be taking for granted? What am I assuming that might not be true in the future? And again, be open to opposing viewpoints–even if the person offering them has less “experience” than you.

Chip and Dan Heath offer a framework called “WRAP” to guide those faced with a decision:

Widen your options when facing a problem
Reality check your assumptions to avoid confirmation bias
Attain distance from your emotions to see more clearly
Prepare to be wrong because the future is uncertain

More of a mindset than a method, keeping these psychological factors in mind will help you avoid the most common pitfalls in faulty decision-making.


photo credit: yanyanyanyanyan via photopin cc

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