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Imagining Other People's Choices Clarifies Your Own

A strategy for simplifying complex decisions.

Many of our decisions are tied to how we view ourselves and how other people see us. We know that getting a tattoo, buying an SUV, becoming a vegetarian, dating on-line, moving to New York City, and getting back together with a spouse who was unfaithful, are all behaviors loaded with personal and social meaning. Your desire to uphold and stay true to your image of yourself affects the choices you make.

The problem is, this makes decisions more complicated, especially when it comes to choices you’ve never made before. It’s hard to predict how getting a tattoo will make you feel until you actually do it. It’s hard to predict how you’ll feel around your family and friends when they learn you forgave your spouse.

Much can be gained by considering a common strategy we use when making decisions, called prototype matching. Instead of focusing on the decision outcomes, the prototype matching strategy focuses on the types of people in those situations as a guide about what we should choose. It works like this.

First, you imagine the “typical” person you would find in each decision choice. For example, when deciding whether to start riding your bicycle to your new job or to just commute the few miles by car, you might visualize the typical cycler (the sporty environmentalist) and the typical driver (the comfortable suburbanite). Second, you compare each person to yourself, and make your choice based on which prototypical person is a closer match to you. If you see yourself as more similar to the nonathletic driver who appreciates a leisurely ride to work, then you’d probably stick with the car. The characteristics of the prototype person are used as your reference point for which situation will be the best fit for you.

Prototype matching simplifies our decisions to a level that's manageable, because thinking about a person is far easier than trying to mentally simulate an entire experience, with all of its uncertainties. The prototypical person encapsulates information in a way that’s easier to understand—as a person rather than an entire situation. Comparing ourselves to this person is also easy, since we judge ourselves against others all the time. Prototype matching, when we use it, typically occurs automatically and outside of our awareness.

Still, being aware of the process can help us avoid certain pitfalls. For one thing, we sometimes neglect to use prototype matching and end up making choices that are totally incompatible with how we see ourselves. Maybe you were talked into buying an SUV by the persuasive car salesman. Maybe you got caught up in the moment when one of your friends insisted that you should all get matching tattoos. Or feeling sentimental, you agreed to adopt a puppy from the guy giving them away outside the market. Whatever the case, you didn’t consider whether your decision was appropriate, when prototype matching would have made this instantly obvious to you.

You can also fine-tune your approach by asking yourself how well the prototype person matches your ideal self (how you aspire to be), rather than your existing self-definition. For example, maybe you don’t see yourself as quite so daring as the people who cut off their hair and donate it to Locks of Love, but if you aspire to be like them, then making the same choice puts you closer to this ideal. Likewise, a heavy drinker might view himself as very different from the guys he sees going into alcohol recovery programs, but if those guys epitomize the way he wants to be, then this ideal is a good standard to follow. Considering your ideal self when making decisions can guide you toward self-improvement.

Prototype matching is interesting because it shows us that many of our personal decisions still have strong interpersonal undercurrents, even when these decisions have no bearing on others. Just as we rely on our friends for career advice and look to on-line reviews about which products to buy, other people are our principal means of making sense of the world.