[G08] Making good decisions

Module: Strategic reasoning

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The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think -- rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with thoughts of other men.

- Bill Beattie

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Making good decisions is crucial if we want to be successful in our projects. According to many CEOs, decision-making is the top management skill. But what makes a good decision? Many people think a good decision if one that has a good outcome. But of course, you can get a good outcome just because you are lucky, and you might not be so lucky next time.

So it is quite important to focus on the process of making a decision. Improving the quality of the decision-making process itself can make good outcomes more likely in the long run.

So what kind of decision-making process is more reliable? Some people say you should "trust your gut" and not think too much when you make decisions. On the other hand, many writers have also argued that you should not let your emotions take over your brain, and that we should make decisions rationally and in a cool-headed way, and avoid being biased by our emotions. So who is right and who is wrong?

The truth, of course, is likely to be complicated. First of all, there are all types of decisions being made by different people under different situations about different things. Furthermore, reasoning and emotions interact in complex ways. Think of the pros and cons method of making decisions, where we decide by listing the good and bad points of a course of action. Careful reasoning is needed to come up with these points, but what makes them good or bad for us very often depends on our emotions. For example, someone might be trying to decide whether to go to the museum and he lists as one of the cons that it will be boring. But what makes it boring for him surely has something to do with his feelings and emotions. In other words, we often do appeal to our emotions in determining the pros and cons.

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made an interesting discovery a while back about emotions and decision-making. He found out that some patients with brain damage in the areas involved in processing emotions ended up not being able to make even simple decisions. These patients don't seem to feel emotions but can reason well and can describe the pros and cons on both sides of a decision. Yet they would think and think and not being able to make up their mind, even on a simple task such as deciding what to eat. It would appear that emotions are crucial in helping us come to a decision.

This is not the same as saying that we should make decisions blindly based on our gut feelings. Acting impulsively is dangerous, and we can easily regret our decisions. Scientists also tell us that gut feelings are often not very reliable. If they are reliable, it is more because they are the products of years of training and experience in some domain where there are learnable regularities. In other words, unless you are an expert, following your gut without thinking is usually not a good decision-making strategy.

However, we do need to listen to our feelings because we often have to live with the decisions that we have made. Some of our deep-seated emotional reactions might come from those aspects of our personality that we are not able to change. For example, perhaps for some reason we just hate somebody's voice. If we cannot overcome this feeling, it might be unwise to develop a romantic relationship with this person, even if he or she might be perfect in all other respects. As the philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal has said, "the heart has its reasons which reason does not know."

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