In our profession, we face difficult decisions every day. Some of them keep us up at night, tossing and turning at 3 am as we ponder what to do about the well-liked employee who isn’t performing up to par or whether or not to pursue that new job opportunity.
Hard decisions are those with far-reaching consequences. They hold the promise (and terror) of altering life as we know it. Given the urgency to “get it right” we often lose ourselves in a flood of anxiety and apprehension. Is there a better way through the decision morass?
Eternal sage Benjamin Franklin once counseled a nephew to use what he called “moral algebra” to solve perplexing problems. This consists of a strategy still employed today–listing pros and cons and letting the balance sheet dictate the outcome. There is something seductively comforting about an approach that intimates there is a “best way” and that we, as logical, rational beings, can systematically sort out the wheat from the proverbial chaff.
But is this the best way to decide? A recent book about the art and science of decision making, How We Decide, calls into question this time- honored method. Author Jonah Lehrer says that research from neuroscience lends credence to the old adage, “Just listen to your gut.” A collective body of evidence now favors the power of hunches over protracted pondering and sorting through lists.
This doesn’t mean we should forgo gathering adequate information or cavalierly choose one option over another without careful consideration. Rather, we should focus on the information in the equation that really matters and let the rest go. As an example, scientist Gerd Gigerenzer, author of Gut Feelings, asked a large number of parents to consider a scenario where their child wakes up, very short of breath and wheezing. They were given these options: They could have a home visit in 20 minutes by a physician they know but don’t like very much, as he doesn’t listen to their views. Or, they could drive to a clinic 60 minutes away where the doctors are unknown but have the reputation of being attentive listeners.
A majority of parents quickly opted for the second choice.
When questioned, Gigerenzer found that this group had discounted details that didn’t really matter and zeroed in on what was most imperative to them—that their doctors listened. He explains that in every case this “one good reason” method of problem solving is superior to the data-sorting, list-making strategy prized by Benjamin Franklin.
Gigerenzer calls these quick decision makers “satisficers” (a combination of suffice and satisfied) and believes they are almost always happier with not only their decisions but their lives in general. In contrast, he calls those who sort through and weigh every detail imaginable before making a decision “maximizers.”
I suspect that has something to do with the fact that the satisficers sleep through the night! I hope this issue helps you with the hard decisions that you face in practice.
Here’s to healthy decision making!
Kathleen Ruby, PhD
Editor in Chief