Making Good Decisions

Read this tutorial about basic decision-making rules. Decision theory provides tools for evaluating the best course of action in scenarios involving risk and uncertainty.

Making good decisions is crucial if we want to be successful in our projects. According to many CEOs, decision-making is the top management skill. But what makes a good decision? Many people think a good decision is one that has a good outcome. But of course, you can get a good outcome just because you are lucky, and you may not be so lucky next time.

Consequently, it is important to focus on the process of making a decision. Improving the quality of the decision-making process itself can make good outcomes more likely in the long run.

So what kind of decision-making process is more reliable? Some people say you should "trust your gut" and not think too much when you make decisions. On the other hand, many writers have argued that you should not let your emotions take over your brain, and that we should make decisions rationally and in a cool-headed way, and avoid being biased by our emotions. Who is right and who is wrong?

The truth, of course, is complicated. First, people make all types of decisions under different situations about different things. And reasoning and emotions interact in complex ways. Think of the pros and cons method of making decisions, where we decide by listing the good and bad points of a course of action. Careful reasoning is needed to come up with these points, but what makes them good or bad for us often depends on our emotions.

For example, someone deciding whether or not to go to a museum may list one of the cons of going as being boring. But boring is subjective, having to do with their feelings and emotions. In other words, we often appeal to our emotions when we determine the pros and cons.

Antonio Damasio (1944– ), the Portuguese neuroscientist, discovered that patients with brain damage in the areas involved in processing emotions could not make even simple decisions. These patients did not seem to feel emotions, but could reason well and list the pros and cons on both sides of a decision. Yet they could not make a simple decision, such as deciding what to eat. It would appear that emotions are crucial in helping us make decisions.

This is not the same as saying we should make decisions blindly based on our gut feelings. Acting impulsively is dangerous, and we can easily regret our decisions. Scientists also tell us that gut feelings are not reliable. If they seem to be reliable, it is because we have made the decision based on years of training and experience in a domain that has learnable regularities. In other words, unless you are an expert, following your gut without thinking is not a good decision-making strategy.

However, we do need to listen to our feelings because we often have to live with the decisions we make. Some of our deep-seated emotional reactions may come from those aspects of our personality we are not able to change.

For example, perhaps you cannot abide the way a person speaks. If you are unable to overcome your feeling, it may be unwise to pursue a romantic relationship with this person, even if they may be perfect in all other respects. However, others may disagree with your decision to concentrate on such a seemingly trivial aspect. As Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), the French theologian and mathematician, said, "the heart has its reasons which reason does not know."

Source: Joe Lau and Jonathan Chan,
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Last modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 4:29 PM