Figuring out how to decide can be hairy. It’s not always easy to get past your uncertainty and make a tough choice. So, how do you do it?
Some suggest that you “go with your gut,” acting quickly and instinctively.
Others suggest analytical approaches that may involve computation of the anticipated value of options, based on numerically expressed likelihoods and utilities.
Each of these approaches can be useful in special circumstances – each has its time and place for making a decision.
For many of the everyday decisions we face these days, it’s not clear that our intuitive systems are all that well tuned for optimal responding, on the one hand, and extensive mathematical analysis seems like overkill on the other.
A middle way in these cases is to write about your decision before you make it. It’s a good everyday technique for how to decide. A way to make a decision that feels right. Yet keeps a little critical thinking in your decision process.
We often feel that writing helps us to understand more deeply. Studies in education and cognitive science show that writing and explanation improve comprehension and other learning outcomes.
Does it also help when you need to make a tough decision?
Winston Sieck and Frank Yates conducted a set of studies at the University of Michigan to test the idea that the process of writing would help people decide critically and confidently.
The idea was that writing would encourage people to explore alternative ways of framing their decision problems, leading to improved decisions.
The researchers also examined whether writing would increase people’s confidence in their decisions. Their paper describing these exposition effects on decision making was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
The researchers gave study participants tricky decision problems that attempted to bias their decisions by describing the details in a particular way (much like the latest ad you’ve seen).
Sieck and Yates then had some people write about the decision they were about to make. They then compared the level of bias in the participants’ decisions with the responses from control groups who did not write before making their decisions.
Here is the essence of the instruction that the “write-to-decide” group was given for how to decide by writing:
Write a memo to yourself. In your memo, make the best argument or arguments you can for the option you plan to choose, as compared with competing options. Explain to yourself, “Why is that the smart thing to do?”
This is a simple instruction for making a decision that you can easily use yourself. But should you?
In the Sieck & Yates studies, the researchers found that the writers were reliably less biased in their decision making than the control groups. Writers built a more complete picture of the decision problem that was less easily susceptible to subtle influences.
The writers were also more confident that they had, in fact, made the best choices. That is, the writing technique can help you to be more confident in your decision making.
This last effect can be important, especially as you are likely to find that decisions that you would bother to write about are those for which you feel particularly indecisive in the first place.
Are you worried about how to decide? Try “write to decide.”
Image credit: recargirl
Sieck, W., & Yates, J. (1997). Exposition Effects on Decision Making: Choice and Confidence in Choice Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 70 (3), 207-219 DOI: 10.1006/obhd.1997.2706