signpost different routes

Despite a shift towards ‘following our heart’, a lot people still advise us to make decisions based on logical, rational factors.

For example, if you went to your university’s career advisor and told them you wanted to work in the performing arts, they’d probably encourage you to choose a ‘safer’ career path. Most parents would also rather see their kids working in a well-respected job in fields like medicine or engineering than, say, fashion design.

And when we do end up following our less profitable passion, the people around us encourage us to go back to a linear, well-established career path.

In a way, this is a little ironic, because it shows that people like to give us advice but they themselves often haven’t thought about decisions should be made rationally or emotionally.

In this post, I want to explore what the best way of making life decisions actually and how we can deal with the conflicting information we get from our friends, family and co-workers.

But before we talk about this, let’s have a look at what making a decision actually means.

Understanding decisions

Suppose you’re at the car dealer looking for your first car. One of the staff shows you around, and after some back-and-forth about your budget and requirements, they recommend that you choose one of three options:

  • a rusty, 10-year-old Ford Fiesta, which you can have for €2000.
  • a brand-new Toyota Agyo for €12 000.
  • or a used Citroen C1 in good condition for €6000.

Which car you do you pick?

Let me guess … if you’re always looking for the cheapest deal, you’ll go for the Ford. If having a new car is important to you and you don’t mind spending a little extra, you’ll go for the Toyota. And if you want a solid car, but don’t want to pay the premium that comes with a brand-new model, you’d pick the Citroen.

And so, we can probably say that whatever car you choose will depend on how important price is to you compared to the condition of your future vehicle.

From this example, we can see two things about decisions:

  1. Decisions are trade-offs
  2. Which trade-offs are worthwhile depends on our values

Decisions are trade-offs

When you make a decision, you effectively choose one option over a range of alternatives. From an economic perspective, this means that the expected benefit of your chosen is higher than the benefit you anticipate from any of the other options.

Making decisions involves weighing different options against each other

For example, if you decide to a Master’s degree at university instead working after your undergrad, you might think that developing additional expertise in your field is more beneficial than the lower income you will have in the short-term.

Similarly, in the car example, you might buy the brand-new Toyota Agyo, because you hope that you’ll need less repairs than if you bought a used car. Of course, you can’t know for sure which car needs less maintenance, but it like a reasonable assumption to make.

Why values matter when making decisions

Your values are very important when weighing different options against each other. For example, if prestige matters to you, you might be willing to work like a slave, doing 80-hour weeks, in a fancy London consultancy. But if you think making a positive impact on your community trumps status, you might choose to work part-time at a local shop and volunteer for a charity you care about.

Whatever you choose to do, there’s never ‘the right option’. People have different interests and values. One path may be right for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone else.

Based on your values, you can choose what you enjoy in your day-to-day, but also make more complex life decisions like choosing a university, switching jobs or moving to another country.

The only thing is … if you don’t know what your values are, it becomes very hard to make a good decision. If we think it about it, that means indecision results from a lack of clarity on our values.

So – making better decisions fundamentally involves knowing what we value and then choosing the opportunities allow us to maximise this value.

But how do we go about this?

Should we follow our heart, our head or gut?

Use Your Brain

A rational approach can help us make decisions that maximise perceived benefits while minimising costs. For example, if you’re buying fruit in a store, you’ll probably choose the ripe apples over those that are starting to turn brown. This is because you know they’ll taste better and you’ll have to throw away less – so overall, get better bang for your buck.

Even though this was a split-second choice, the neurons in your brain were firing rapidly to process large amounts of information and help pick the best apples. Subconsciously, you weighed different options against each other, and assessed the benefits and limitations of each, by looking at the short-term consequences and potential future outcomes.

And for something as simple as choosing which apples to buy – this system works flawlessly.

The problem with imperfect information

What if you didn’t have all the information you needed – for example if you had to pick an apple without being able to see or touch it? If all you had was your sense of smell? You’d probably still be able to make a decent choice, but due to information constraints you might not always find the PERFECT APPLE. 

Just like with choosing an apple, if you need to make more difficult decisions like what company you want to work for, you might not always have all the information at your fingertips. You might have a decent impression of what it’s like to work for Company A vs. Company B, but when you actually spend some time on the job, you’ll see that some parts of the work were different than you originally imagined. This lack of information, also known as information scarcity, can reduce the quality of your decisions.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there will be times when you have so much information that it quickly becomes overwhelming.

What would be easier: to pick your favourite phone from 5 models or from 50?

Of course, having just 5 options is much simpler … and science shows you’re more likely to be satisfied when selecting from a small number of options – even if the selection is objectively worse. Additionally, too much information can overload our brain and lead to what we call choice paralysis – where we become so overwhelmed that it’s hard for us to make a decision.

Therefore, we need to strike a balance between having too little or too much information at our disposal.

How cognitive biases screw us over

Even when we have the right amount of information, our brain just isn’t capable of optimising for our values – unlike a robot or machine could do.

Most people would rather buy a gallon of milk from a farmer who says ‘My cows graze on the fields 30% of the year’ than from a farmer who claims to keep his cows inside 70% of the year.

But if you think about it, this is completely irrational. Both farmers let their cows roam freely for exactly the same time, they’ve just told their story differently. The first farmer focussed on the cows’ freedom (a positive attribute), whereas the second emphasised their confinement (a negative attribute). As such, we can see that how information is presented can lead to totally different conclusions.

Apart from this so-called ‘framing effect’, there lots of other biases that change how we make decisions. For example:

  • We have a tendency to look for information that supports our existing beliefs, while discounting information that goes against them. This is known as confirmation bias.
  • We fear losses more than we value gains, and would rather accept a deal that offers a 50% probability of gaining 2€ over one that has a 50% probability of losing 1€.
  • We consider recent information to be more reliable and important than older sources. Because of this recency effect, newspaper articles published in the last day are read more frequently than older articles, even where older articles are of a better quality.
  • Our brain tends to prioritise tangible benefits like salary over harder-to-quantify experiences and opportunities.

As a result, the decisions we make are never 100% rational – and even when we try to be as rational as possible in our choices, we might not always make the best decisions.

Follow Your Heart

We tend to give our emotions a bad reputation – and if you look at how we deal with them in every day it’s easy to see why.

We eat an entire ice cream tub to drown our sorrows, act out in a fit of rage when we don’t get our way and say things that can destroy entire relationships or ruin our prospects at work.

The consequences of letting our emotions go out of control can be devastating. But that’s not to say that we should leave our feelings by the wayside when making difficult decisions.

Emotions are a beneficial guide that help us in every decision. For example, if you are walking alone in a dark alley and you get scared when you see someone sneaking up to you, that fear might just motivate you enough to get the hell out of there and back to safety. Or in a less dramatic case, any resentment you feel towards a hiring manager in a job interview might stop you from working for a company whose values and priorities don’t match yours.

Our feelings can also have a big impact on our wellbeing. After all, what looks like the best option objectively, might be less great if it leaves us lying awake at night.

Deciding to travel from Europe to Fiji and then exploring the Pacific islands nations around it, might not be the best choice if we are scared of flying and have a tendency to get seasick (no matter how much we value new experiences and travelling to different countries).

Beautiful flowers making us feel happy

For these types of decisions, emotion can be just as useful, if not more so, than reason. Anger, for example, can encourage us to respond to injustice, and the fact that we anticipate regret might help us avoid taking excessive risks. Similarly, happiness and joy can inspire us to work on interesting projects. And we see another person being sad we automatically feel an urge to comfort and support them.

But is there a drawback to following our heart when we make decisions?

Yes.

Emotions can cloud our judgement

Imagine, for instance, that you were stuck behind the gates of a train crossing on your way to work, and not a single train passed. By the time you arrive at the office, you are 40 minutes late for work and fuming with anger.  In 20 minutes, you have an important meeting with a client who would like to place a new order. Your task will be to negotiate a favourable price for the company.

Under so much pressure, you struggle to push your feelings aside and may come out of the negotiation feelings stressed and defeated. When you reflect on your meeting later that day, you notice a lot of red flags and you can tell that you’ve messed up.

What happened was that a totally unrelated event – the delay at the train crossing – made you so emotional that it ruined your performance during the negotiation and that accepted and unfavourable offer.

Research has shown that positive emotions may make us more optimistic while negative feelings encourage us to avoid risk and stick to safer, well-trodden paths.

Emotions can change quickly

Our feelings are known to be very volatile. We can go from happiness to rage almost instantly, and our emotions change from one second to the next.

Especially when our feelings keep alternating, they aren’t always a good guide for making long-term decisions. For example, if one day you love your boyfriend, but the next day you get so angry that you’d rather break up, it will be very hard to decide what is best for you and him in the long term.

Listen to Your Gut

Our intuition is like a beacon in a lighthouse. It’s great at telling us when something ‘just isn’t right’ and it warns us before we get too close to shore.

For example, at university, I was once approached by a cute guy, but I had this weird feeling about him and didn’t feel comfortable when he was around. We were in the campus bar one night, and he tried get me drunk.

I refused to take even the slightest amount of alcohol from him, because I had a hunch that he would try to dominate me and take things more seriously than I wanted at that point. And based on the rumours I later heard about him and the weird texts I got in the weeks that followed, I’m glad I did. Thanks to my intuition, I wasn’t fooled by looks and charisma, and stopped having contact with the guy.

As you can see, our intuition can save us from making the wrong choices, even if they seemingly look right.

False alarms

Sometimes, however, our intuition just seems to fail. Either it warns us about a risk that doesn’t actually exist … or it fails to point out threats that can influence our lives.

These false alarms tend to happen when we are emotionally involved and anxiety, anger or guilt interfere with our gut feelings.

Now that we’ve looked at reason, emotion and intuition – which of the three should you listen to when making difficult decisions?

How to Make Difficult Decisions Quickly

Well, we’ve seen that reason, emotion and intuition have different strengths and drawbacks.

But the true power comes from combining all three approaches.

Let your rational mind list all available options and note down the consequences of each option. Then, go through the options one by one and imagine that they’d come true tomorrow. How would each of the options make you feel?

Finally, give yourself some time away from thinking about your upcoming decision. Then, write all options that you are seriously considering on index cards, shuffle them up, and spread them out on the floor with the text facing downwards.

Close your eyes and pick the card that most appeals to you. Turn it around and see if the choice you picked is the one that most appeals to you. If not, weigh your favourite choice against the choice on this card to make a decision.

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