1. Whenever possible, consider alternatives Our brains are not good at evaluating evidence dispassionately. Force yourself to generate alternatives. Research has demonstrated the value of counter-factual thinking: thinking about the opposite helps us make better decisions.
2. Reframe the question Our memories are highly contextual so the background to any issue we consider has a huge impact on how we view it. Politicians, advertisers and other influencers use framing extensively to persuade us of their point of view. You can fight back by reframing their propositions.
3. Correlation doesn’t equal causation There’s a clear correlation between foot size and being richer, owning your own house and having a better education. On the other hand people with smaller feet are often still struggling with potty training. Guessed it yet? People with small feet are usually children, so of course they have less money, don’t own their own houses and, haven’t been to school yet. Correlation doesn’t equal causation.
4. Never forget the sample size When we think about someone and a few seconds later they call us, is that evidence of ESP? Consider the sample size. How many times have you thought about that person in the past year? How many times have they called you in the last year? What first seems like a freak occurrence soon starts to look inevitable. Sample sizes are easy to forget.
5. Anticipate your impulsivity The best of intentions often break down in the face of vicious temptation. People find it difficult to predict just how far off course their emotions can pull them. Use any method you can to counter your impulsivity: cancel the credit card and join a Christmas Club.
6. Make contingency plans Humans are better at concrete goals; abstract goals like ‘read more’ or ‘lose weight’ get lost in the mix. Substitute these with: ‘read this book by next Tuesday’ and ‘don’t buy any junk food on the weekly shop’.
7. Make important decisions when relaxed and rested Does this need explaining?
8. Weigh costs against benefits Common advice but actually quite tricky to do. Research shows that our minds prefer to consider either costs or benefits; taking both into account takes considerable effort. Opportunity cost: when we do one thing, we can’t be doing something else. When I watch TV the benefit might be relaxation and enjoyment but the cost is that I can’t be reading that mind-improving book that’s being lying around for weeks.
9. Imagine your decision will be spot-checked When we think someone will check up on us we make more cognitive effort, leading to better decision-making. Even if no-one is checking up on you, imagine their reaction if they did: would you be proud of your decision?
10. Distance yourself When making decisions we are influenced by whatever thoughts and emotions are swirling around in our heads at that moment. Help distance yourself by thinking about how this decision will affect you in the future. Big decisions are always better made after a night’s sleep. Again, it’s common advice but it can be surprisingly difficult to distance yourself.
11. Beware the vivid, personal and anecdotal It’s so easy for us to be swayed by vivid or personal stories that we may ignore more considered, scientific evidence. Look carefully at the information source – are you being manipulated?
12. All decisions are not equal Some decisions are more important than others. Not all decisions warrant effortful deliberation: sometimes it’s better just to choose and be done with it. The trick is knowing which is which – experience should provide strong clues.
13. Be rational! Thinking rationally could help us make better decisions. Consciously trying to think rationally will also help activate all the other techniques described here. Our memories being what they are, this is no bad thing.
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