How to make smarter decisions, according to a psychologist
Struggling to make smart choices? We’ve got some invaluable guidance from a world-leading psychologist on how to make smarter decisions to help you out.
Gaining a clear, unbiased perspective on the world around us may seem like a reasonable goal, allowing us to solve problems intelligently, unlock our potential, and ultimately make better decisions in our day-to-day lives that boosts our wellbeing. However, it's not as easy as it sounds.
Our thinking can be prone to errors and societal and inherent biases - making decisions, therefore, isn’t always straightforward. However, by recognising these and implementing strategies, we can make more informed and intelligent choices.
With expert advice from Woo-Kyoung Ahn, a Psychology Professor at Yale University, we’ve put together this guide to help you navigate the complexities of decision-making, and included some practical tips on how to improve your day-to-day decision-making and achieve the best logical outcomes.
Understanding decision making
Decisions shape our day-to-day lives and can impact our futures. Understanding the complexities of decision-making and how our decisions are often influenced is a really important first step when thinking about how we can make better decisions.
Factors including cognitive biases, emotional states, societal norms, and personal experiences and beliefs can contribute to our decisions, and according to Woo-Kyoung Ahn, we also have cognitive limitations, which can sometimes lead to errors in our thinking and judgements.
Over thousands of years of evolution, humans have developed ‘heuristics’, or rules of thumb, as a quick and efficient way to solve problems within these limitations.
While heuristics generally work well, they are not foolproof, especially in a complex and confusing world. These faulty thinking patterns and perceptual distortions can result in personal and social imbalances, leading to problems such as racism, misdiagnosis in medicine, discrimination, misunderstandings, and errors in our decisions.
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Self-awareness is the first step, therefore, to better decision-making. By recognising our cognitive blind spots and emotional triggers, we can navigate through our choices with better clarity and reach smarter decisions.
Unveiling common thinking errors
As humans, we are prone to various cognitive biases and thinking errors that can cloud our judgements and hinder rational decision-making. According to Woo-Kyoung Ahn, our most common thinking problems include overestimating/underestimating ourselves, confirmation bias, negativity bias, and prejudice. Identifying and acknowledging these is fundamental to arriving at rational decisions.
Confirmation bias, particularly prevalent in today's political climate, occurs when we favour information that confirms our assumptions and prejudices, whether or not they are true.
According to a 2022 study on the function of confirmation bias, confirmation bias is ‘people’s tendency to search for information that supports their beliefs and ignore or distort data contradicting them.’ We are more likely to be influenced by negative information than positive, and we are more likely to believe anecdotes than facts.
Woo-Kyoung Ahn explains that confirmation bias is ‘the hardest to solve’ as our brains struggle to understand large abstract numbers, probabilities, and statistics, contributing to these biases.
5 ways to counteract misconceptions and improve decision-making in your everyday life
Human irrationality has been studied closely since the 1970s, with new psychological discoveries that are challenging the previously held assumption that we always think rationally. The good news is that we can recognize these misconceptions, break through patterns, and develop strategies to identify and counteract them.
In her new book, Klar Denken, (meaning ‘clear thinking’), Woo-Kyoung Ahn provides interesting examples, mind games, and practical techniques to address these biases in everyday life.
For example, in one behavioural experiment, women who read a text claiming that men are genetically better at maths before an arithmetic task performed 25 per cent worse than those in the test group who didn't receive the text, illustrating just how easily we can be led astray based on preconceptions
Woo-Kyoung Ahn emphasises the importance of realising our fallibility, questioning assumptions, and seeking clarification instead of assuming. We’ve looked into five practical techniques to help counteract misconceptions and focus on reaching logical decisions:
- Practice mindfulness and self-reflection: Practising mindfulness is a great way to stay in tune with your thoughts. It will keep you aware of your thinking, emotions, and motivations, helping to improve decision-making. Self-reflection allows you to identify patterns in your decision-making and uncover potential biases that might influence impulsive decisions. Check out our guide on mindfulness habits to point you in the right direction and our guide on mindfulness journals to learn how to start wellness journaling and its benefits.
- Seek different perspectives: When making an important decision, reach out to friends, family, or work colleagues for their advice and opinions. Engaging with others and considering alternative perspectives (which you may not have considered) can broaden your understanding, help you gather more information and make well-rounded and thought-through decisions.
- Set clear goals: Before arriving at a decision, make sure you are aware of your end goal. Establish what you want to achieve, prioritise your objectives and let this focus guide you in your choices.
- Consider pros and cons: Think of all angles when making a decision to ensure you have thought of all possible benefits, risks and outcomes. This will allow you to reach a well-balanced result, enabling you to methodically evaluate options and reach a more informed conclusion.
- Learn from past decisions: Reflect on past decisions to help you on your next ones, whether successful or not. Learning from mistakes and successes will equip you with valuable experience, help avoid repeating errors and help to refine your decision-making processes with effective outcomes. As Woo-Kyoung Ahn explains, understanding the possibility of errors allows us to stay closer to the truth, provide wiser answers, and make better decisions for the future. It's essential to acknowledge that anyone can be wrong, and by embracing this fact, we can strive for greater accuracy and progress.
If you want more expert-led guides and recommendations, check out our page on wellness, which includes guides on breathing exercises for better sleep, 5 signs that you're being too nice and how to create a productive workspace, according to experts.
Cordelia Aspinall is a Digital Writer for Immediate Media, working across brands including The Recommended, RadioTimes.com, MadeForMums and BBC Gardeners’ World. She has previously worked and written for digital publications including Condé Nast Traveller, The Evening Standard, Cosmopolitan, and several other lifestyle brands.