PLaurence Alison, professor of psychology, is an expert in decision-making, but at the beginning of her career, everything was theoretical. Then one day he received a call from “someone very high up”, who described a disturbing trend: police chiefs were unable, in critical situations, to make crucial choices. “He asked, ‘Is there anything you can do to help?'”
There was. Alison – an outspoken, no-nonsense person – started translating what he knew from textbooks and turning it into practical advice. “Academic work on decision-making has focused on studying how it is made in theoretical contexts,” he says. “But I realized we needed to move it to real-time situations, online lives: tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, where chances were someone was facing a situation where almost every choices seemed dire. I knew I had something to offer that would make a difference.
Today, he and his colleague, Neil Shortland, with whom he conducts training courses for military, law enforcement and political leaders around the world, have written a book that conveys even more of the wisdom that they have perfected it, making it accessible to a wider audience. “The people we work with are regularly faced with tumultuous decisions,” says Alison. “In normal life, maybe 1% of the decisions we make are truly life changing. It’s things like committing to your partner; would it be better to change careers; is it a good time to have a baby? The problem is that many people are terrified of these decisions. They believe they are bad at making critical choices. You hear them say things like, “I just want someone to tell me what to do.
In fact, the gem at the heart of the book is that there’s almost always a decision that’s perfect for you – so it’s usually best to make your own decisions. It’s about tapping into your personal values and focusing not on the process but on the end goal. “I would say the biggest mistake people make when it comes to making decisions is not focusing on the outcome,” says Alison. “They’re worried about making the decision, when they should be getting things done and thinking, ‘What do I really want to accomplish here?'” Shortland agrees: “People fail to focus clearly on what matters to them.They see that an option is attractive in a way, but they don’t think about what they have to give up to get it.
For Alison, who teaches at the University of Liverpool, and Shortland, who is based at the University of Massachusetts, recognizing the place of regret is fundamental to effective decision-making. The fear of regretting a decision later is paralyzing for some people — and it’s part of why they believe the greatest danger around decisions isn’t doing the wrong thing, it’s doing nothing. “In many ways, we’re wired to want to keep the status quo, to play it safe,” says Alison. “These big life decisions are unusual events in our lives. We don’t have much to compare them to, so we lack expertise – and the easiest thing is to be on the safe side and stick with what we have. He calls it “decisional inertia” and says it’s common in many tricky situations – mounting a rescue operation, for example, or choosing when to launch a military attack – where there is no perfect outcome, just “bad” or “worse”. It’s the same with some decisions in “ordinary life” – and in those cases what is needed is an awareness of what is less bad – but it will always be an unpleasant judgment to make.
What is the secret to being able to make even the most delicate decisions? Alison and Shortland came up with a formula with the director acronym “Star”. S is for Situational Awareness, figuring out what is happening, why it happened and what you think will happen next. In their book, they tell the story of Jenny, who discovered that her husband of 11 years, Rob, was having an affair with a work colleague. The discovery clearly gave Jenny a huge decision to make, whether to stay with Rob or leave him; but first, she had to figure out what was going on, both in their marriage and in the other relationship. Leaving Rob seemed like the obvious way to go, but in the end, Jenny stayed. When she unpacked the situation, she could see what was wrong with her marriage, but more importantly, she believed it was possible to undo the damage. When you’re confronted with it, says Shortland, your brain is like a glass already full of water. You have to let some of it out before you can think about what’s going on. You have to find yourself some space, some time, before you can sort out what’s going on.
But time – the acronym T – is also very important here. Because before making a decision, you have to calculate the time you have to do it, and if there is no deadline, and it’s indefinite (should I look for a new job? Do I want to move to another country?), you have to be careful not to go down the road of doing nothing, because you have an eternity. You don’t really have an eternity, Alison and Shortland warn: Life is short, and sometimes if you choose to hang on rather than make a choice, you actually make the choice anyway.
The A in Star is for adaptation. Good decision makers are open-minded and adventurous in spirit, and tend not to be intimidated by exploring new possibilities. “Take the example of someone who gets a call out of nowhere, offering them a new job,” says Shortland. “The danger in this case is that you’ll be flattered to take it, thinking you didn’t have to scramble for it, it landed in your lap, so why not take it? Which you should do, though , it’s testing it: instead of repeating all the reasons why it makes sense to take it, test yourself with arguments about how it’s not okay.” We’re wired, he explains , to seek validation (hello, social media) But if you reassure yourself that something is right and then it turns out to be wrong, you will pay the price.
Finally, R is for review, because making a decision once doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t review it. “The Star model is anchored around what people tend to struggle with around decision-making,” Shortland explains. “We want to share the pitfalls, outline the dangers of how your mind tends to want to go, so you can ignore it if it’s in your best interest. We try to see decision-making as an organic process rather than an end in itself. Our approach is holistic, and it’s based on knowing what matters most to you. »
Alison and Shortland agree that some personality types are easier than others to make decisions: they make a lot of so-called maximizers (who strive for perfection) compared to satisficers, who will settle for something that is “good enough”. The problem for maximizers is that hanging on to waiting for everything to line up can mean missing an opportunity, and also, real life is rarely, if ever, perfect. The basis of good decision-making is the knowledge that by choosing one option, you must give up other possibilities. The cooler you will be to let them go, the easier your decision-making will be.
So how good are Alison and Shortland at making their own decisions? Shortland says he was recently offered a new job and had to decide whether or not to go for it. “It was a challenge, because I had to think very deeply about what I really wanted,” he says. “And after writing a whole book about it, it still took me five days to make up my mind: self-awareness and honesty is what it’s all about and that takes time.” Alison says he still has to mull over his decisions, and some are definitely more difficult than others. “My stumbling block is sometimes reacting too quickly – disregarding my own advice as to whether or not I should act at this exact moment, or whether I can wait a bit.”
In the meantime, they are considering the use of artificial intelligence. “AI can play chess, it can guide fighter jets, it can spot patterns and warn us about certain things,” Shortland says. “But can he tell us what decisions to make right now? Could AI handle the next pandemic? We start looking at the pros and cons. As with police chiefs, the real world has come calling: It’s the hot topic right now, and we’re at the heart of it.
Decision Time: How to Make the Choices Your Life Depends on by Laurence Alison and Neil Shortland is published by Vermilion at £14.99. Buy a copy from guardianbookshop.com for £13.04