Finishing this article, my computer prompts me: ‘Do you want to save this document?’. I do, which is why I press ‘save’, but now that it’s questioning my decisions, so am I. Do I really want to save it? Is it even good enough? Or should I just start again? Oh dear…
I’m notoriously indecisive. Ask me if I want a cup of tea or coffee and I won’t give you an immediate answer, even though I don’t actually drink coffee. To plump for one beverage option without giving the other due thought seems ill-advised.
Deciding what to wear, or what to have for breakfast often makes me late for work. The next decision on my list is where to have a family holiday next year. Will we go abroad or stay in the UK? There are advantages and disadvantages to both choices. I am torn between the two.
My husband, however, is decisive. He walked into our current house, took one look around and decided to offer the asking price, while I was wondering whether the reasonably sized garden compensated for the tiny bathroom. Once he’s made a decision, he won’t agonise over whether it was right or not – he’ll just get on with it.
Intuition versus logic
Sometimes our different approaches help us to reach ‘good’ decisions, while at other times they lead to arguments that go around in circles.
The good thing is, I am not alone. People are as different in the way they make their decisions as they are in their preferences for drinking tea or coffee, and both our make-up and our psyches affect the way we go about it.
According to psychologists, every decision we take, every judgement we make, is a battle between intuition and logic: a struggle between the part of our mind that analyses a problem then comes up with a rational solution, and the part that is responsible for ‘gut feelings’ and more intuitive.
Interestingly, no matter how rational we think we are, most of our decisions are made by our intuitive mind, which is faster, more easily accessed, and tends to override our slower, logical mind. On top of which, our thinking is riddled with systematic mistakes, known to psychologists as ‘cognitive biases’.
There’s the present bias, which makes us focus on what’s happening now; the confirmation bias, which makes us look for information that validates what we already know; and others like the hindsight bias; the negativity bias; the loss-aversion bias; and so on.
To use the present bias as an example, if I ask you if you would like half a box of chocolates now, or a whole box tomorrow, more people are likely to go for half now. Despite the fact that our rational brains tell us that waiting and getting more chocolate makes sense, our intuitive brains are set to say: ‘Yum, chocolate, I want it now!’
Dr Laurie Santos, a psychologist at Yale University, has investigated these biases, and concludes that they are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past, leaving our decision-making processes better suited to short-term, fight-or-flight survival problems, than those that relate to the modern world.
‘If we’ve had this strategy for the past 35 million years, we need other ways to avoid the pitfalls,’ she says. ‘We may not be able to change but, by being aware of our cognitive limitations, we may be able to design the environment around us to allow for our mistakes.’
Take the business environment. In the last series of The Apprentice, Lord Sugar blasted one candidate for being slow to make up his mind. He saw this as a sign of weakness and a failure to display leadership. But was he right?
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a personality inventory, designed to make Jung’s theory of psychological types understandable and useful in everyday lives. It identifies 16 distinctive personality types, that result from the interactions among four sets of preferences: thinking or feeling; sensing and intuition; extraversion and introversion; and judging (J) or perceiving (P).
Penny Moyle is a Myers-Briggs consultant and the CEO of OPP, a business-training consultancy. She says that the dimension between judging and perceiving is the one that is most closely linked to ‘decisiveness’. For instance, do you prefer to pin down a decision (J), or leave your options open to allow for new information (P)?
‘People with a preference for judging enjoy creating structure and making decisions, and tend to come across as organised,’ she explains. ‘People with a preference for perceiving prefer keeping their options open. They like to continue seeking information, rather than closing things down by making decisions too soon.’
She could be talking about my husband and me. He’s a judger, while I’m a perceiver. Both types, according to Moyle, have their relative strengths and weaknesses.
The ‘jury’ effect
‘Neither kind of person necessarily makes good decisions,’ Moyle says. ‘Although judging types like making lots of decisions, these will not be good ones, unless they have considered enough information. Perceiving types are likely to fall into the opposite trap – leaving things so open-ended that decisions don’t get made.’
One of my favourite plays is 12 Angry Men, by Reginald Rose. A man is on trial for murder and, initially, 11 members of the jury are convinced of his guilt. These, according to Moyle, are judgers. During the play, it takes one perceiver to persuade the rest of the jurors to think about all the evidence. In the end, the initial snap decision of the 11 jurors is reversed – and an innocent man is acquitted.
It’s this ‘jury effect’ that Moyle tries to bring into play in business situations. ‘We recommend that people make sure they systematically and consciously consider all ways of taking in information,’ she says. ‘By deliberately having a more rounded perspective, there is a greater likelihood you will make better decisions – and also persuade others to come along with you.’
I’ve still not sorted next year’s family holiday. Cornwall or Croatia? My husband’s immediate preference was for Cornwall, but he’s agreed to look at what’s on offer in Croatia before making up his mind.
I’ve come to realise we’ll probably have a good time wherever we go and, at some point, I’m simply going to have to plump for one, or the other.