All of us make bad decisions from time to time. The judgments and choices you make each day, no matter how big or how small, are all influenced by a wide variety of biases, prejudices, emotions, errors, mental short-cuts, and oversimplifications. With so many factors, it is important to learn how to make better decisions.
So is there anything that you can do to make better choices? There are actually a number of research-demonstrated strategies that can minimize the biases in your thinking and ultimately lead to better decisions.
1. Give It Some Time
When looking for advice on how to make better decisions, one of the number one tips is to give yourself more time when making an important choice. Traditional wisdom has long cautioned people to “just sleep on it” when making big decisions, implying that taking a few hours or days to make a decision can lead to better choices. Recent research has found that even a slight delay, just a fraction of a second, before making a choice can lead to greater accuracy.
In a study published in the journal PLoS One, researchers from Columbia University Medical Center engaged volunteers in computer tasks that either involved responding whenever they wanted or waiting for a signal indicating that they were able to respond. The researchers found that manipulating the length of time that participants had to view a stimulus before making a decision increased accuracy.
“Postponing the onset of the decision process by as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds enables the brain to focus attention on the most relevant information and block out irrelevant distractors,” explained Jack Grinband, one of the study’s authors and assistant professor of clinical radiology at Columbia University Medical Center. “This way, rather than working longer or harder at making the decision, the brain simply postpones the decision onset to a more beneficial point in time.”
So the next time you’re faced with a choice, take a brief pause and focus on the available options before committing to your decision. Even a small delay, the research suggests, might help you make a more accurate selection.
2. Improve Your Emotional Intelligence
In one study by researchers from the University of Toronto, volunteers who had higher emotional intelligence made better decisions. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved looking at participants with low and high levels of emotional intelligence. The researchers found that those with lower levels of emotional understanding tended to let their anxiety about others issues in their lives influence current decisions, while those who had high levels of emotional intelligence did not.
“People often make decisions that are influenced by emotions that have nothing to do with the decisions they are making,” explained one of the study’s co-authors, Stéphane Côté, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “Research has found that we fall prey to this all the time.”
The researchers did find, however, that making participants aware that their anxiety was not related to the issue at hand could lead to better decisions. This indicates that people may be able to put off high stakes decisions until they are able to focus only on the issue at hand or at least only focus on the emotions that are actually related to the current decision.
“People who are emotionally intelligent don’t remove all emotions from their decision-making,” explained Prof. Côté. “They remove emotions that have nothing to do with the decision.”
3. Keep Your Stress Levels In Check
Researchers have also found that stress can affect how you make decisions, often in negative ways. The study, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, involved putting participants under stress by having them place a hand in ice water for several minutes. The researchers found that in these stressful situations, participants were more likely to pay attention to positive information while discounting negative information.
The study’s authors, Mara Mather and Nichole R. Lighthall, suggest that when you are making an important decision under stress, like trying to decide if you should accept a new job position, you are more likely to focus on the benefits of each alternative rather than the potential downsides. For example, when weighing the pros and cons of a job offer, you would be more likely to focus on the benefits such as increased pay and time off instead of the negatives such as more work hours and a longer commute.
“We make all sorts of decisions under stress,” Mather explained. “If your kid has an accident and ends up in the hospital, that’s a very stressful situation and decisions need to be made quickly. It seems likely that how much stress you’re experiencing will affect the way you’re making the decision.”
So if you want to make better decisions, be sure to keep your stress levels in check and brush up on your stress management skills. When you are faced with a difficult choice during a stressful time, try not to ignore or discount the possible downsides to each alternative.
4. Try Looking at the Problem as an Outside Observer
When you are dealing with something in your personal life that is particularly troubling – such as family or marital issues – emotions can often cloud your judgments. According to one study published in the journal Psychological Science, considering the problem from the perspective of an outsider can actually help you make better decisions.
In the study, participants in monogamous relationships were asked to think about a conflict they had experienced in their relationship. Then the volunteers were either asked to imagine a scenario in which their own partner was unfaithful or to imagine a situation in which a friend’s partner was unfaithful.
The researchers discovered that those who were asked to imagine a friend’s partner cheating were able to make wiser decisions and reasoned more accurately than those who imagined their own partners cheating. Later variations of the experiment also demonstrated that asking volunteers to think about their relationship problems through the eyes of a friend led to better reasoning and decision-making.
The results indicate that even when problems hit close to home, thinking about it as an outsider and placing some distance between yourself and the situation can help you make wiser choices.
Association for Psychological Science. (2014). Distance from a conflict may promote wiser reasoning. APS Observer. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/distance-from-a-conflict-may-promote-wiser-reasoning.html
Columbia University Medical Center. (2014, March 7). Ever-so-slight delay improves decision-making accuracy. CUMC Newsroom. Retrieved from http://newsroom.cumc.columbia.edu/blog/2014/03/07/ever-slight-delay-improves-decision-making-accuracy/
Mather, M. & Lighthall, N. R. (2012). Risk and reward are processed differently in decisions made under stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 36. DOI: 10.1177/0963721411429452.
McGuffin, K. (2013). Higher emotional intelligence leads to better decision-making. Rotman School of Management Media Centre. Retrieved from http://www.rotman.utoronto.ca/Connect/MediaCentre/NewsReleases/20131119.aspx
Yip, J. A., & Cote, S. (2012). The emotionally intelligent decision maker: Emotion-understanding ability reduces the effect of incidental anxiety on risk taking. Psychological Science, 24(1), 48. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612450031.