Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


10 Ideas for Wise Decision-Making

Thinking tools for everyday life

Wisdom is not the same as intelligence or being smart. Intelligence requires processing information in a logical way. However, having a high intelligence is not enough for successful decision-making. Our mind is wired with biases. Wisdom requires being aware of these errors. Here are 10 ideas toward making wise decisions.

1. What is the question?

The hardest part of a problem is the understanding precisely what is the problem. Good arguments should start right out by stating precisely what they are about. Otherwise, you’ll begin with a shaky foundation. So once you do know what the question is, you will know what the answer means.

2. Seeing the bigger picture

A broader perspective allows us to consider multiple aspects of a situation. From a broader perspective, choices are made based primarily on global concerns (why), whereas from a narrower perspective, those priorities are weakened and even reversed. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. However, a broader perspective makes it easier to put complicating details aside and focus on what seems most important. As Nietzsche remarked, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

3. Resourcefulness

The psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Without a new way of viewing the world we will most likely use the same kind of thinking that created so many of our problems in the first place. Focusing only on what we already know can limit our ability to think more broadly.

4. The power of situational context

It is easy to overlook the power of the situational forces. For example, organ donation rates in European countries are much higher than the US (90% vs. 20%). In most European countries, individuals are assumed to be willing donors but have the option to opt out. In the US, to be a potential donor, a person must take some action (signing the back of his driver’s license). Context plays a powerful role in shaping individual preference and behavior.

5. Overemphasis on internal characteristics

The concept of fundamental attribution error suggests that we inappropriately explain behavior by character traits when it is better explained by context. For example, by incorrectly attributing responsibility for obesity mostly to individual characteristics rather than to the environment or context, the non-obese can view themselves as morally superior. But the reality is that poverty and neighborhood characteristics may constrain the food and physical activity choices available.

6. Dissonance reduction behavior

In the Aesop’s fable, the fox tries hard to get his hands on a tasty vine of grapes, but fails in all of his attempts to acquire the grapes; at which point the fox convinces himself that he really didn’t want those grapes that badly after all. The moral of this story is that we strive to ensure that the picture we have of ourselves is coherent (not dissonant), which is a means for maintaining a positive self-evaluation. Cognitive dissonance results from a tension between a desire and a belief. And because dissonance is a noxious state, our beliefs move into line with our behavior. For example, if I have unjustly harmed another person, I may be unable to admit to myself that I am at fault. Instead, I will seek out a fault in the other person that justifies or at least excuses my behavior. Often rapists will say, “she dressed provocatively.”

7. People often see what they want to see

Our desires/motivation influence our perception. If we believe something is true, we search evidence for it. Rarely we search for the evidence against it. For example, a person with low self-esteem is highly sensitive to being ignored by other people, and they constantly monitor for signs that people might not like them. Studies have shown that when people are encouraged to ask themselves, “why might my initial impression be wrong?” or “why might the opposite be true?” they tend to overcome the bias.

8. Overcoming overconfidence bias

Gary Klein suggests a remedy to overcome overconfidence by conducting a premortem session. A premortem tries to find out what might go wrong before it’s too late. This involves asking a group of knowledgeable individuals about a decision/plan: “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.” The purpose is to legitimize doubts and produce a list of threats that was neglected.

9. The primacy of behavior

Everyone knows that the way we feel influence the way we behave. But psychologists have shown that the opposite is also true. A wide variety of studies demonstrated that adopting facial expressions of emotion lead to the corresponding emotional feelings. This is known as “fake it till you make it.” An expression of pride produces determination. Projecting pride motivate people to try harder in problem solving. It’s reported that the late fashion designer Oscar de la Renta believed in beauty, not for beauty’s sake, but because he understood that elevating the outside could help elevate the inside.

10. Dealing with uncertainty

The philosopher Taleb states that you will never get to know the unknown (e.g., odds of earthquake). But you can imagine/guess how much it might affect you. In other words, in order to make decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know). The more uncertainty you face in the future, you will do well by having options. Chance favors the preparedness. An important strategy for the military is to invest in preparedness, not in prediction.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today