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Three keys to making good decisions

Patrice Georget
Patrice Georget
Lecturer in Psychosociology at the University School of Management IAE Caen

The World Health Organ­i­sa­tion (WHO) recent­ly list­ed know­ing how to make deci­sions as one of the ten psy­choso­cial skills required to respond effec­tive­ly to the demands and chal­lenges of mod­ern dai­ly life. Clas­si­cal­ly, neu­ro­science dis­tin­guish­es three stages in deci­sion mak­ing1: def­i­n­i­tion of pref­er­ences, exe­cu­tion and obser­va­tion of an action and final­ly expe­ri­ence of the result. Here, I offer some of the pit­falls with­in each of these stages and offer sug­ges­tions of how to over­come them by look­ing at three major psy­cho­log­i­cal duels.

Duel #1: heuristic vs. systematic

“Am making the right decision?”

The process of ‘decid­ing’ con­sists of man­ag­ing the con­flict that occurs between the two speeds at which our thoughts occur. ‘Sys­tem 1’ is rapid, low effort, intu­itive and heuris­tic, com­pared to sys­tem 2 that is slow, sys­tem­at­ic, log­i­cal, and delib­er­ate2. Both have their advan­tages (speed, ease, reli­a­bil­i­ty, rel­e­vance) and dis­ad­van­tages (bias, noise, cost, fatigue), which are the source of much sci­en­tif­ic debate. Nonethe­less, the key to man­ag­ing this duel is found in process of inhi­bi­tion3; in oth­er words, suc­ceed­ing (when nec­es­sary) in sus­pend­ing hasty judge­ment, ready-made rou­tines, con­sen­su­al stereo­types and cog­ni­tive bias­es – in oth­er words, know­ing when not to act.

Of course, it is more dif­fi­cult to inhib­it rou­tines than it is fol­low pre-learned pat­terns because it requires new infor­ma­tion to be learned and prac­tised. As such, apply­ing strict selec­tiv­i­ty to a deci­sion con­sists of mea­sur­ing and weigh­ing up the duel between the two speeds of the mind that dri­ve our choic­es45, know­ing that some­times intu­itive deci­sions may, in fact, prove to be more effec­tive6.

Appli­ca­tion #1

Here is an exam­ple of a deci­sion you could come across: “Play the lot­tery in such a way as to win the most mon­ey”. Take a minute to place five num­bers on a grid from 1 to 49 and think about the duel that is going on inside you – prob­a­bly uncon­scious­ly. Gen­er­al­ly, we mobilise sys­tem 1 to play the lot­tery. For exam­ple, using the avail­abil­i­ty of ‘lucky’ num­bers (such as birth­days) or the rep­re­sen­ta­tion bias of chance which leads us to spread out our num­bers, to “increase our chances”7! How­ev­er, as it turns out, every­one tends to use the same meth­ods and bias­es. So, when we observe the grids of lot­to play­ers, we notice on the one hand that there is a sat­u­ra­tion of choic­es between 1 and 31 (dates of birth) and on the oth­er hand that there are very few sequences. To respect the ini­tial task (opti­mise win­nings) you must do what the oth­ers don’t do. That means you should play num­bers above 31, and include sequences, because few oth­er peo­ple do so. Thus, in the event of a suc­cess­ful draw you don’t have to share the win­ning! As we can see in this exam­ple, “play­ing well” con­sists of inhibit­ing the nat­ur­al dri­ve towards our super­sti­tions and bias­es there­fore try­ing to fight against one­self. This is true in most of our dai­ly decision-making.

Duel #2: perseverance vs. persistence

“Did I do the right thing?”

The greater the invest­ment in time, ener­gy, or resources (human, finan­cial, etc.), the stronger the will to legit­imise the deci­sion tak­en. But how far can we per­se­vere to the point of no longer being objec­tive, no longer see­ing the facts or hear­ing the argu­ments that clear­ly call into ques­tion the deci­sion we made? While it is good and social­ly val­ued to be per­sis­tent, it is impor­tant to iden­ti­fy the almost obses­sive pur­suit of an action against all objec­tive rea­son89.

Once the deci­sion has been made, the implaca­ble log­ic of ‘sunk costs’ sets in, with its share of well-known cog­ni­tive bias­es that are hard to shake off: hypoth­e­sis con­fir­ma­tion (I look for argu­ments that con­firm my deci­sion and only those argu­ments), sta­tus quo (if there is no rea­son to change, then why change?), loss aver­sion (to risk los­ing because of a change is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly unbear­able).

It is dif­fi­cult to fight against this dilem­ma alone since we are often only dim­ly aware of our own cog­ni­tive bias­es. Hence, tak­ing coun­ter­mea­sures can make it pos­si­ble to avoid these traps before­hand. For exam­ple, ensur­ing that the peo­ple who make deci­sions are not the same as those who eval­u­ate the effects and there­fore the con­tin­u­a­tion of the deci­sion tak­en. This is why, for exam­ple, new pres­i­dents who come to pow­er can more eas­i­ly stop process­es that were start­ed 20 years ago and which every­one knew were ineffective…

Appli­ca­tion #2

the Mon­ty Hall dilem­ma10 illus­trates this deci­sion-mak­ing trap well. Imag­ine you have three opaque cups A, B and C in front of you. Under one of them you have hid­den, for exam­ple, a €50 note, under the oth­er two noth­ing. You must choose a cup with the objec­tive of win­ning the €50. For exam­ple, you choose A. The host then turns over one of the two remain­ing cups that he is sure does not con­tain the €50 – B, for exam­ple. You are then offered anoth­er choice: keep the orig­i­nal choice (A) or take the remain­ing one (C). What do you do? The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of par­tic­i­pants decide to stay with the ini­tial choice (A), believ­ing that there is no rea­son to change. How­ev­er, to max­imise the gain, it is nec­es­sary to change because the remain­ing cup (C) has the same prob­a­bil­i­ty as the returned cup (B). It is remark­able to car­ry out this exper­i­ment in a group and to note on the one hand to what extent the argu­ments of the par­tic­i­pants reflect the above-men­tioned cog­ni­tive bias­es, and on the oth­er hand to what extent the diver­gent minor­i­ty posi­tions (chang­ing the cup) are obscured from the debate by the major­i­ty who fierce­ly main­tain that chang­ing is irrelevant.

Duel #3: investigator or lawyer?

“Was I right?”

Our minds are par­tic­u­lar­ly adept at recon­struct­ing past sequences by attribut­ing inter­nal caus­es (skill, effort) to our suc­cess­es and exter­nal caus­es (dif­fi­cul­ty, envi­ron­ment) to our fail­ures. Hind­sight bias is the ene­my of reli­able debrief­ing and feed­back, since once the effects of a deci­sion are known, its func­tion is to give us the feel­ing that we always knew before­hand what was going to hap­pen. It acts as a con­trol of uncer­tain­ty: “it was obvi­ous, I knew it would work”. In a way, one becomes a lawyer who seeks to exon­er­ate or incrim­i­nate those accused of a bad deci­sion, which results in a search for those guilty and respon­si­ble who “knew but said noth­ing”. The cur­rent health cri­sis shows that the witch-hunt can rapid­ly take hold. To avoid this trap, both for one­self and for oth­ers, it is impor­tant to record the max­i­mum amount of infor­ma­tion avail­able at the time deci­sions are made. This enables us to car­ry out a real inves­ti­ga­tion after­wards, with the aim of improv­ing our future deci­sion-mak­ing and to avoid the lawyer in us con­struct­ing a “fake news fic­tion” sto­ry­line, after the fact11.

1Philippe Allain (2013). La prise de déci­sion : aspects théoriques, neu­ro-anatomie et éval­u­a­tion. Revue de neu­ropsy­cholo­gie, 5(2), 69–81
2Daniel Kah­ne­man (2012). Sys­tème 1 Sys­tème 2. Les deux vitesses de la pen­sée. Paris, Flam­mar­i­on
3Alain Berthoz (2020). L’inhibition créa­trice. Paris, Odile Jacob
4Shane Fred­er­ick (2005). Cog­ni­tive reflec­tion and deci­sion mak­ing. Jour­nal of Eco­nom­ic Per­spec­tives, 19 (4), 25–42
5Olivi­er Houdé & Gré­goire Borst (2018). Le cerveau et les appren­tis­sages. Paris, Nathan
6Gerd Gigeren­z­er (2009). Le génie de l’intuition. Paris, Bel­fond
7Mar­cus Du Sautoy (2014). Le mys­tère des nom­bres. Folio Essai
8Bar­ry Staw (1976). « Knee-deep in the big mud­dy: A study of esca­lat­ing com­mit­ment to a cho­sen course of action », Orga­ni­za­tion­al Behav­ior and Human Per­for­mance, 16 (1), pp. 27–44
9Ansel, D. (2005). Incer­ti­tude et escalade d’en­gage­ment. Quand coopér­er devient risqué. Les Cahiers Inter­na­tionaux de Psy­cholo­gie Sociale, 65, 3–12
10Gérald Bron­ner (2007). L’empire de l’erreur. Elé­ments de soci­olo­gie cog­ni­tive. Paris, PUF
11Lionel Nac­cache (2020). Le ciné­ma intérieur. Pro­jec­tion privée au cœur de la con­science. Paris, Odile Jacob


Patrice Georget

Patrice Georget

Lecturer in Psychosociology at the University School of Management IAE Caen

Patrice Georget is a lecturer and researcher in psycho-sociology at the IAE Caen University school of management, which he directed from 2015 to 2020. He has been an industry consultant in diversity management and risk prevention. He has been an expert for the APM (Association Progrès du Management) since 2009 and a GERME speaker.