How does the human mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better?
Decisions, decisions! Our lives are full of them. From the small and mundane, like what to wear, to the rare and profound, like when to remove life-support from a loved one. We defend our right to choose as it is at the heart of free will. Yet sometimes we struggle to make decisions, or make bad decisions that leave us with regret.
Making decisions requires us to balance the seemingly opposing forces of emotion and rationality – we carefully deliberate over the pros and cons or we go with our gut. But our decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason; the precise mix depends on the situation. Here are a few tips to help you make up your mind.
Don’t fear the consequences.
Every decision we make involves predicting the future and we try to take the option that we think will make us happiest. The only problem is that we are not very good at this emotional forecasting and we tend to overestimate the impact of our decisions, both good and bad. For instance, we tend to think that winning the lottery will make us happier than it actually will. So remember, whatever the future holds it will most likely hurt or please you less than you imagine.
Go with your gut.
It is tempting to think that to make good decisions you need to weigh up the pros and cons of various alternatives, but sometimes an instinctive choice is just as good, if not better.
For complex decisions the more information you have, the better off you may be to avoid conscious deliberation and instead go with your gut. But before you throw away your list of pros and cons, a word of caution – if the decision you face is highly emotive, your instincts may not serve you well.
Consider your emotions.
Emotions are integral to decision-making as all emotions affect our thinking and behaviour. Our brains store emotional memories of past choices we have made, which we then use to help guide present decisions. Be careful when making very important decisions though, as intense emotions can cloud good judgment.
Limit your options.
While we may think more choice is best, in reality, often less is more.
Too many choices makes greater demands on our information-processing skills and can leave us feeling overwhelmed and in a state of decision paralysis. This paradox of choice applies to us all, so instead of trying to make ‘the best or right’ decision, simply aim for a ‘good enough’ option.
Ask for help.
If you feel overwhelmed or unable to reach a decision on your own, consider help from a psychologist.
A clinical psychologist has specialist training to objectively assist in the decision-making process by taking into account an array of factors, including values, preferences, biases, reason, emotions, memories and any underlying conditions, like anxiety, that can make it harder to reach a decision.
Asking for help doesn’t mean a lifetime of therapy; even just one or two sessions can help you consider the dilemma at hand and give you more confidence to make up your mind.