For many emotionally sensitive people, decision making can be agonizing. Deciding what to wear to an important wedding, where to go on vacation, whether to break up with a boyfriend and sometimes even which restaurant to choose for dinner with friends can take painful hours. Worry about making choices can mean constant self-doubt. Which decision is the right one? What could go wrong? What if it’s the wrong choice? The process can be so exhausting you wish you could just flip a coin and be done with it or avoid the process altogether.
Given that decision making can be unpleasant, we may avoid thinking through the consequences of decisions or adding any additional information to the mix. Sometimes we want one option so badly that we don’t want to hear any negatives about that option. There are many ways that decision-making can get derailed.
The Four Villains
In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath suggest that to make the most effective choices we need to go beyond a pros and cons list. Just looking at pros and cons will not address all the problems people face in making decisions. They identified four “villains” of decision making that interfere with making good choices: narrow framing, confirmation bias, short-term emotion, and overconfidence.
Narrow Framing. Narrow framing means that you are not considering all the alternatives available to you–you are defining your choices too narrowly. Narrow frame thinking would be when you are asking yourself if you should take a certain action or not, or which of two actions would be better. For example, should you move to a new city or not? Should you go for a walk or read a book? Restricting yourself to two choices limits your alternatives. You may not even consider options that would be better.
When you are emotional, your thinking narrows. If you are deciding how to save yourself from an approaching tiger, this narrowed thinking can be helpful because it promotes quicker action. In other situations, narrow frame thinking is too restrictive. If you are deciding whether to buy a new car, choosing between buying or not buying would be a narrow frame. Considering other options for the money, such as booking a trip to Europe or putting the money into savings, may give you a better picture of the worth of the car to you.
Being aware of narrow frame thinking is particularly important to emotionally sensitive people. When emotionally sensitive people face a decision, they tend to become more emotional than others and their thinking tends to narrow more than the person who is not emotionally sensitive. With awareness, the emotionally sensitive can take steps to widen their view.
Confirmation Bias. Confirmation bias means that when you want or believe an idea to be true, you pay more attention to the information that supports that belief. People naturally tend to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs and actions. For example, if you believe that people with red hair are more likely to have a temper problem, you will notice and spotlight whenever you see a redhead angry. You may not even notice when someone with redhair doesn’t react or see it as a rare exception. An executive may believe his gut decisions are the right ones and give greater weight to the times this is true and negate information to the contrary.
Emotionally sensitive people sometimes fear the worst may happen if they don’t make the right choices or they may have other beliefs that are not supported by current facts. Having these beliefs means you are likely to see and interpret information to support your fears when that is not the case.
Short-term Emotion. Short-term emotion will pass and is not useful in making a long-term decision. Short-term emotion clouds thinking. When you are emotional about a decision, you might replay arguments over and over until you can’t think straight, even though the facts have not changed. You may also only be thinking emotionally, such as wanting a red sports car that is impractical for you in the long run. If you are emotionally sensitive, having to make a decision about something may trigger fear and worry that will interfere with your logic in addition to narrowing your focus.
Overconfidence. Overconfidence is believing that you know what the future holds. Some years ago people generally believed the Internet would never catch on and no one would pay for television programs. Many years ago people were confident the earth was flat. In everyday life it might be that you are absolutely positive that a certain job is the right one for you (even though you have never worked in that field before) or that getting into a certain school is the only way to achieve your goals. Being overconfident leads to not considering alternatives or what might happen if your choice doesn’t work out well. Being overconfident about the future can lead to unfortunate outcomes.
Heath and Heath propose the WRAP model for effective decision making. I’ll discuss that model in the next post.
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