Easier Ways to Make Smarter Decisions

Last Updated Aug 12, 2011 9:29 AM EDT

Sometimes, your brain just won't give you a break. Rom Schrift, of Wharton, and Oded Netzer and Ran Kivetz of Columbia University, have just completed research showing that when a decision is easier than people expect, they often make it more difficult. That way, it matches preconceived notions of how 'hard' a given choice is supposed to be, and people feel like they've done the right amount of 'work' in reaching a conclusion.

The problem, of course, is that all of this uses up mental energy, generates stress, wastes time, and can even lead to poor decision making--even when the correct choice should be relatively obvious.

How do our brains complicate decisions that really deserve to be easy? As summarized in a recent research note from Wharton:
  1. By making the unimportant important. In one experiment, the researchers asked study participants to choose between two physicians. Before doing so, they rated the importance of various criteria such as office hours, flexibility, and training. Based on the criteria that the participants said were important, one doctor was clearly superior. One doctor also made house calls, which the participants initially said they didn't care about. But with an easy choice in front of them, the participants all of a sudden started putting great importance of house calls, sometimes choosing the doctor who made house calls even though he or she lacked all the other qualities that were previously described as important.
  2. By making two alternatives more 'equal' than they really are. One test asked participants to score a dozen paintings based on how much they liked them. They were then shown two of the twelve paintings at random and were asked to again assign them ratings and also to choose the one they liked better. This time, the paintings that were liked best in the first round got lower scores. The paintings that were liked least the first time scored higher the second time.
  3. By changing our preferences. In this test, the participants had to choose between job offers. One job paid more and had a shorter commute. But in one job the applicant would work with three workers, and in another he or she would work in a team of six. Even though one job was far superior--more money, shorter commute--the participants started obsessing over whether they'd rather have three or six team members.
Just being aware of how tricky the decision-making process can be--and how simple it should often be--is one way to keep your brain from playing tricks on you. The researchers are also planning follow up studies to examine tools that can help stop overthinking and lead to better decisions. In the meantime, the researchers have some suggestions:
  • Make a written list of priorities before you begin to evaluate alternatives.
  • If possible, get a friend involved. Since it won't be his or her decision, it's a lot easier for a friend to see if you're overthinking something. And they know that the faster they help you make a good decision, the faster you'll be buying them a beer to thank them.
What tricks do you use to make decisions easier? Or to help others come to a good decision?

RELATED Image courtesy of flickr user NightRStar
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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