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3 Strategies for Better Decision-Making

What to do when indecision strikes.

Do you struggle to make decisions? Are you worried you won’t make the right decision? Are you always needing more information before you can decide? If so, you are not alone. We, along with every other species, make hundreds of decisions every day, most of them mundane. When to wake up, what to eat, when to eat, which route to take, etc. That might be why when BIG decisions have to be made we struggle. Do other species fret, worry, put off choices, and decide not to decide? Or, are there certain principles they use to aid them in making important decisions?

First let’s consider what might constitute a significant decision for humans. While there are a range of circumstances, I want to focus on whether or not to move to another state, which may or may not coincide with a change of employment. I simply use this as an example, though the principles that follow apply to any decision that is of consequence.

Moving, especially far away and on your own, can be extremely stressful. It’s not as simple as picking up and going to a new place. For example, your familial or social support may not be readily available to you. This is exactly what happens to a small, highly social, squirrel monkey. When an individual squirrel monkey decides to leave the group (and territory) it was born in, there are potential risks and pitfalls.

 Carine06/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Source: Carine06/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The biggest risk is death. While they are off on their own, trying to find another group to join, they don’t have the benefit of a group to watch out for predators. Fortunately for us, there aren’t jaguars lurking around the corner of a new city block, but we may still feel anxious or nervous about moving into a new environment because we aren’t familiar with it and no longer have family or friends nearby.

Aside from the familial or social costs, there is also the real-world cost of moving. We measure it in dollars, while squirrel monkeys measure it in energy. The time spent searching for a new location, physically moving to new locations, and finding less food are challenges that individuals face. Whatever the currency, we can agree that moving is expensive! Obviously, there must be benefits to going to a new place or we (and squirrel monkeys) would stay put. Some of these benefits include greater access to higher quality resources and increased mating opportunities. In our lives this might translate into better job opportunities, lower cost of living, and well, let’s face it, increased mating opportunities.

With all the plusses and minuses to consider, how do other species decide whether or not to leave everything familiar and head for places unknown? First, they gather information about their external environment to reduce uncertainty. For a squirrel monkey, information about the external environment can include the current food supply in the environment, the number of potential mates available in the troop, and their ability to access both of these. What information do they not have at their fingertips? The future. And neither do we. Like squirrel monkeys we can only use current information to give us the best guess at future conditions.

Something we often don’t consider, but which matters tremendously when assessing situations and making decisions, is internal conditions. Ants are useful for considering this aspect. In general, ants are pretty smart creatures and tend to make good decisions. Moving and house-hunting is a big deal for one small species of ant, Temnothorax albipennis, found throughout Europe. Like squirrel monkeys, they collect information on several external features of each potential nest site before collectively making a decision. However, when their internal state is off (e.g., if they are stressed or under a time crunch), they end up making a poorer choice and set up a mediocre nest. In behavioral ecology we call this “speed-accuracy tradeoff paradigm”. In layman’s terms this simply means impulsive decisions made under stress don’t lead to the best outcome. Because stress compromises the ability to make good decisions, take the time to consider your options.

Tony Hisgett/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Source: Tony Hisgett/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

What if you have collected information and evaluated on your inner state of being and you still can’t decide? This is where a quote often attributed to Voltaire applies: “The best is the enemy of the good”. Interpreted loosely, this means, if you wait for everything to be perfect before you decide, you will never decide. Bumble-bees by their very nature are risk averse. Under good conditions (e.g., lots of honey, in good health), bumble bees don’t see any reason to change the status quo. Every day they have to decide which flower patch to visit. If the flower patch they visited previously provided enough nectar to remain in good condition, they continue to visit that patch. They don’t refuse a good food source because they aren’t sure it’s the best. It simply needs to be good enough to keep them in a positive place. However, that doesn't mean they stop considering other options. They sample. They push the boundaries a little bit, still visiting the reliable patch while exploring new patches. Essentially, they balance a set strategy with gathering new information and updating their decisions as they go.

So here are a few tried and true strategies that can mitigate potential risks and maximize rewards:

1. Gather information. Blindly making decisions is usually a recipe for letting luck determine your fate and poor outcomes. While there are limits to how much, and what kind of, information available to you, it pays to accumulate as much knowledge as possible to increase the probability of making the best choice. Keep in mind, though, that there are diminishing returns on this process. Meaning, there comes a point where additional data does not contribute to better decision-making.

2. Consider your internal state. Making impulsive decisions under duress or with limited time is not optimal. If possible, take steps to reduce stress and extend the time you have available to make decisions. Occasionally, though, you may have to make decisions quickly and without complete information. This alone can increase stress because we intuitively know it is riskier. Given no other option, make a decision that will cost you the least in that moment. This helps buy time and minimize the consequences of a poor decision.

3. Pursue incremental improvements. Even if you are not facing an immediate decision and your situation is good, it can always be better. You need not wait for the “best” to make a move. Assessing your range of options and slowly exploring new situations can assist you in updating your information and make decisions. The upside of this approach is that when the time comes and you do need to make a decision quickly, you will have accurate and up-to-date insights that can provide some insurance against uncertainty.

Uncertainty poses a problem for us and other species when it comes to making important decisions. Ultimately, the “rightness” of a decision only matters when the magnitude of the consequences are high if you are wrong. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff, but it’s not all small stuff.