We make numerous decisions every day, often without much thought about the process of having made them. We come equipped with our own set of habits, emotions, opinions, and perspectives. Sometimes we are drawn to making decisions for reasons we do not fully understand; we might hire a new employee because it feels right, or we promote those on our team because they deserve it. Psychologists and behavioral economists have studied this issue, and understanding their discoveries can help avoid the traps that get in the way of making wise, sound decisions.

Pattern Recognition

Much has been studied about pattern recognition – a complex process that integrates information from as many as thirty different parts of the brain. When faced with a new situation, we make assumptions based on prior experiences and judgments. Pattern recognition is a skill used by marketing and data analytics professionals every day as they notice what works and establish new, creative ways to solve problems. However, pattern recognition can also hinder us. When we’re dealing with seemingly familiar situations, our brains can cause us to think we understand them when we don’t.

Equity & Fairness

Studies find that fairness plays a big role in decision making, often stronger even than self-interest. Keep equity in mind when evaluating decisions – both how fairness plays a role in the verdict, as well as how the decision will be perceived by others. In a professional setting, any decision deemed unfair (such as giving raises and bonuses to senior level management while laying off junior staff) can be met with resistance solely due to the principle of injustice.

Jumping to Conclusions

The Ladder of Inference, or the thinking steps that lead to a conclusion, can be climbed in milliseconds. Yet, the conclusion you come to may not be based on sound reasoning. In this process, you begin by observing something objectively. Next, you begin filtering the data you observed. You create assumptions about which parts of the observation are important, and this assessment is based on how things you observed affect you, or fit into your cultural experience. You then add meaning and make assumptions because when something is unknown, it is natural to assume that the motivations, behaviors, wants, desires, likes and dislikes will match your own. Now that you’ve convinced yourself you understand the situation, you draw conclusions and have feelings about these conclusions. You then take action based on those feelings, and usually exhibit an emotional, rather than a rational, response. These assumptions take the place of truly understanding the situation.

Making Sound Decisions

What process can you use to make sound decisions? Begin by identifying the true decision to be made, and reasons behind the need for a solution. Get all of the facts, and understand their causes. Make your thinking process visible to others by explaining your assumptions, interpretations, and conclusions. Invite others to test your assumptions, push back on your conclusions, respectfully confront your reasoning or suggest an alternative perspective.

After all information has been considered, a decision based on that information should be made and implemented. While this might seem obvious, a decision only counts when it is executed. The final reflection on any decision is whether the problem was solved. Did it go away? Did it evolve? Is it better now, or worse, or the same? What new problems did the solution create?

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