Tough Choices: The Science Behind Making The Right Call

Our lives are filled with one decision after another. Many are trivial but every now and then, a biggie comes along, one where you just know that you’re about to irreversibly shape your own future.

The bad news is our decision-making is hampered by the fog of human irrationality. Fortunately, science has shown us that there are tricks and habits we can use to improve our judgments and better light the path ahead.

Phone a friend.

We’re hopeless at predicting how future circumstances will affect us emotionally – this is what psychologists call “affective forecasting.” At a general level, most of us overestimate the impact of future events, good or bad. Think of the times you made a decision you had been putting off. When all was settled you likely thought, “That wasn’t so bad.” This myopia is accompanied by misplaced confidence in our own predicative abilities, so that our instinct is to rely on our own forecasts rather than finding out how the same experience affected others, especially when it comes to life’s big decisions.

If you want to know how you’ll feel if you take a given path, research suggests you should acknowledge your own biases and find out how a friend or neighbor felt after they made the same decision that you are considering. Moving to a new city? Ask someone that lives there. Looking for a new job in a certain field? Ask some new hires what they’d suggest. Don’t assume you “know” how things are going to turn out. Ask.

Don’t assume you “know” how things are going to turn out. Ask.  

Be your own devil’s advocate.

Psychologists call this process “dialectical bootstrapping” and studies have shown that it can improve a single person’s judgments by encouraging broad-minded thinking and a consideration of all the facts.

We know that, in the right conditions, the summed wisdom of a group of people is superior to the judgment of any person deciding alone. But not all of us have the benefit of a trusty committee to navigate us through each day. An alternative approach is to summon the crowd within.

Let’s say you need to decide how many orders to make for a product used in your work. Ask yourself once and write down your answer. Now assume this first estimate was wrong and think about the reasons this might be.  In other words, put yourself in the shoes of someone inclined to disagree with you. Take these two results and walk through the logic for each. The combined insight gained can help you form a better-informed decision. 

Squash your biases.

Suppose I told you I’m sitting opposite a man who is wearing glasses and listening to Mozart. Do you think it’s more likely that he’s a literature professor or a truck driver? If you choose the former, you’ve just fallen for what psychologists call “base-rate neglect”. The “base-rate” is the likelihood for the most important factors at play.

As Rolf Dobelli explains in The Art of Thinking Clearly (from which the example is taken) – there are vastly more truck drivers than literature professors, so even allowing for stereotypes, it’s far more likely the man is a trucker than a professor. When making judgments for your business or career, it’s always worth remembering the base rate – most books never get published, most tech start-ups fail, most MBA students end up working in middle management. This isn’t to demoralize you, but to help guard against reckless unrealistic optimism. As Dobelli says, “When you hear hoofbeats, don’t expect a zebra.”

Stop thinking about it.

Sometimes if we think too hard on a problem we can get stuck in a mental dead end. One antidote is to distract ourselves from making a judgment and let our non-conscious minds do the work. Research suggests this can be especially advantageous if you have relevant expertise and you’re attempting to make an accurate prediction about the future – which book cover design is likely to be most effective, say, or which candidate will be most suitable for your team.

This idea of “not thinking” about a problem is based on psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis’ Unconscious Thought Theory. In one relevant study he showed that people with soccer expertise made more accurate predictions about upcoming results in a Dutch league if they distracted themselves for two minutes before making their judgment calls. “… Unconscious thought may well be helpful in more situations than some people currently think,” Dijksterhuis and his team wrote at the time (99U covered this phenomenon here).

Adopt an emotionally ambiguous attitude.

Our emotional state affects the way we approach decisions. Generally speaking, we tend to be more focused and analytical when we’re sad, and more reliant on gut instincts when we’re happy. Which emotional state is optimal when making professional judgments? Well, both.

An intriguing study published earlier this year by researchers at the Michigan Ross School of Business showed that people made more accurate predictions and answered more general knowledge questions correctly when they were in an “emotionally ambiguous” state – feeling both happy and sad at the same time. The state was triggered by having participants write about a time they’d felt that way – you could do the same.

For example, think back to when you left high school and you were sad to leave your friends, but happy about the freedom and opportunities ahead. Further analysis by the researchers suggested the improved judgment accuracy was because people in an emotionally ambiguous state were more open-minded and receptive to useful information. In other words, you were able to capture the best of both sadness and happiness. “The ambivalent mind can be a wise mind,” Ross and his team said.

We tend to be more focused and analytical when we’re sad, and more reliant on gut instincts when we’re happy.


Human judgment is flawed but we don’t have to be defeatist. The techniques above represent just some of the ways – based on psychology research – that we can optimize our judgments and decisions. Now, the next time you’re faced with a tough choice you’ll be well-armed.

How about you?

What do you do when you have to make a tough choice?

More insights on: Decision-Making

Christian Jarrett

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Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blogcontributor to New York, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer.
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