One of the factors that makes some decisions "big" is how rarely they happen. Most people only get one degree. Most only get married once, perhaps twice. The average number of kids per family is less than two.
Another factor is that big decisions have long-reaching consequences and yet are really hard to undo. Sure, plenty of people get divorces but just ask one of them what was involved. It’s little wonder it’s one of the biggest big life decisions.
It's fair to say that if there's any decision you want to get right, it's those few and far between "big" ones. And yet, due to their infrequency and permanence, we don’t get an opportunity to learn much or apply what we do learn. So, it's worth trying to get it right the first time.
What's the alternative to learning from your own experience? Learning from others’ experience. You may only get married once in your life, but getting married is really common overall. Millions do it every year. So what do those people who have done it before have to say?
Life's Biggest Decisions
I have spent my career studying decisions. A couple of years ago, I began to ask people to tell me about their biggest life decisions. In this blog, I share what I have learned.
As I have described in the first article in this series, big decisions can be placed into one of the following categories: Career, Education, Family, Finances, Relationships, Relocation, Self-Destruction, Self-Development, and Other. Each of these has a number of sub-categories. Some decisions are more likely during certain periods of life, which I have described in the second article in this series.
Since big decisions are so important yet so rare, I have also asked people to, in retrospect, tell me whether each big decision was a good or bad one. I have also asked them to rate how they made the decision on a variety of different factors. The idea was to reveal the choice elements important to making a good decision.
What Kinds of Big Decisions Are Positively Evaluated?
Looking back, was your last big decision a good one or a bad one? The figure below shows the respondent’s answer to this question for each major decision category.
The main thing that jumps out is that there’s more green than red. That’s good. Most people evaluate their big life decisions positively. This finding is consistent with what psychologists call the fading affect bias: negative emotions fade faster than positive emotions.
The two categories that stand out are self-destruction and self-development decisions. Self-destructive decisions, such as starting an addition or self-harm, were more often than not evaluated negatively. By contrast, close to 90 percent of self-developmental decisions, such as pursuing a religion/philosophy or learning a new skill, were evaluated positively.
The Elements of a Good Big Life Decision
Of course, some decisions do turn out better than others. So, it is important to reflect on what decision elements are associated with more positive evaluations.
The figure below shows the percentage of respondents indicating they made a “very good” decision split by how they responded to the different decision element questions. For example, for each decision, respondents were asked if the decision was “Unexpected” or “Expected” by their loved ones. For unexpected decisions, 59 percent were evaluated as very good in retrospect whereas, for expected decisions, 64 percent were evaluated as very good in retrospect. Some questions had more response options than two but, for simplicity, we are just focusing on the ends of the possible response options.
The “unexpected-expected” element reveals a small difference in favour of expected decisions being later evaluated more positively (64 percent vs. 59 percent). The larger the difference, the more insight we can make. There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll focus on just a few key findings.
Should I stay or should I go, wondered the punk rock band the Clash in their 1980s hit song. The results indicate that you should go. Big decisions were more positively evaluated when they involved a change than when they involved maintaining the status quo. This is consistent with research suggesting that people more often regret the things that they didn’t do rather than the things they did do.
Is it better to rely on analysis, intuition, or a mix of both to make big decisions? Analysis involves doing research, looking up statistics, asking others for advice, and carefully weighing up the pros and cons. On the other hand, intuition is much more reliant on gut instinct and your emotional reaction to imagined risks and benefits involved. Big decisions tended to be judged more positively when they were made using a more analytical approach.
Does feeling confidence in your decision at the time have much impact when looking back? It sure does! Of those who were extremely confident in their decision at the time, 88 percent later evaluated the decision as very good. This is compared to just 32 percent for those who were not at all confident at the time. Confidence is likely related to risk and risky decisions can backfire. However, these results suggest that if you’re not feeling confident in a decision then you might be better off postponing until you can learn more.
How much time should you spend thinking about a big decision before making a call? Taking more time to decide was associated with better evaluations. One result that really stood out is depicted in this third figure. Whereas most respondents thought for only seconds or minutes before making self-destructive decisions, most respondents spent weeks or even years thinking about self-developmental decisions.
There are a few important take-homes from this analysis. First, even though you might rightly stress over big decisions, you should take some comfort in knowing that most will probably end in a good place. In general, people are pretty happy with their life and it was their unique set of big decisions that led them to their current situation.
Second, decisions to engage in self-developmental activities, such as travelling, pursuing spirituality, or taking up a new hobby, are most often judged to be good decisions when looking back. It may be hard to find the time to get away or focus on something that isn’t critical to your current problems but your future self will not regret it.
Finally, even though you will rarely make a big life decision, there’s a lot to be learned from the experience of others. Taking your time, using an analytical approach, avoiding the burden of obligation, and generally being confident in your decision at the time you make it are all factors that contribute to a good big life decision.
The next post in this series is “Which Big Life Decisions Lead to Long-term Happiness?”. In the meantime, if you'd like to see how your own big decisions compare to others, complete the survey yourself here and also check out the data.