10 Ways Science Can Help You Make Better Decisions
Last Updated: Jul 16, 2015
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Life moves quickly, and every day we make countless in-the-moment decisions, often not fully considering the consequences and finality of those choices. In spite of this, things usually turn out reasonably well. But what about those times things don’t turn out so well, when you wished you might have chosen better? With science contributing to breakthroughs in medicine, technology, physics and just about every area of life, wouldn’t it be nice if science could also help us in the decision-making process? Well, here are several experts who say that scientific studies and scientific methods can indeed help us make better decisions -- and they also explain how you can take advantage of it.
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LEARN TO SETTLE FOR “GOOD ENOUGH”
Maximizers are one type of decision-maker. Their goal is to make the optimal decision. They will spend endless amounts of time and energy examining every option, struggling to make the best choice possible. And yet research shows these people are often less happy with their decisions than the other type of decision-maker: the “satisficers,” those who aim for a decision that’s simply “good enough.” Satisficers do have standards: Their criteria, in fact, may be very high. But once they determine which choice will meet their criteria, they make their decision and move on satisfied. The maximizer, on the other hand, continues to anxiously research and compare options, often resulting in either the inability to actually choose or finally making a choice and being ultimately dissatisfied. When faced with a decision, try not to overthink it. Learn to settle for “good enough,” and be content with the decision you make.
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MIND OVER MATTER
Although many of us live in a state of high stress and tension, the best decision-makers are usually focused and calm, says James Schwabach, a performance psychology consultant with Apex Performance, Inc. One way Schwabach helps clients reach that ideal state of mind is with biofeedback and the practice of mindfulness. Biofeedback involves instruments that measure physiological activities and provide feedback to the user. The idea is that if you show someone what stress actually looks like, he is better able to recognize and correct it. Mindfulness is a state of active, nonjudgmental attention on the present moment and one’s current thoughts and feelings. Growing evidence indicates mindfulness can have a positive effect on the way decisions are identified, made, implemented and assessed. “Biofeedback allows me to deliberately train my clients to improve their mindful attention, allowing them to get into a mindful state when they most need it,” Schwabach says.
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THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT
Another expert who’s been studying how the mind and body interact to affect decision-making is Julia Mossbridge, a cognitive neuroscientist and research director at Mossbridge Institute, LLC. Mossbridge believes that unconscious processing is critical for making good decisions. “Physiology -- including heart rhythms -- are linked to both unconscious and conscious processes,” she says. With this in mind, Mossbridge developed the app Choice Compass, which allows users to record their heart rhythms as they imagine making each of two contrasting choices. Based on her research with hundreds of testers, the app tells the user which of the two choices produced heart rhythms most similar to those made when people imagine making positive choices. “It makes sense to literally ‘listen to your heart’ when making decisions,” Mossbridge says.
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THINK LIKE A SCIENTIST
One of the ways science can help you make better decisions is by adopting the scientific method, says Pablo Solomon, artist, designer and former science consultant to the Emergency School Aid Act. “In science,” he says, “you identify a problem or question, you gather information, you postulate a hypothesis, then you basically try to disprove that hypothesis.” When faced with a situation in life where you must make a decision, approach it with this process in mind. “If your hypothesis holds up under scrutiny,” Solomon says, “there is a good chance it is correct.” Though, he adds, keep in mind that rarely is anything 100 percent right -- and everything is up for review.
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NOTE THE EXCEPTIONS
Keep your eye on the outliers, says Taliba M. Foster, M.D., a board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist in private practice. While researching and examining large amounts of data allows us to trace trends, preferences and norms, Foster says, there will always be a population that falls outside the circle of predicted or desired results. “The data about these outliers is often the most important,” she says. It can illustrate why certain strategies fail and illuminate errors in our decision-making process.
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WATCH FOR DECISION FATIGUE
When faced with multiple decisions, be mindful of decision fatigue. There is such a thing as too much information and too many choices, says psychiatrist Taliba M. Foster. “In 2011, science columnist and author Sharon Begley published an article in Newsweek about an ‘information overload’ study performed by Angelika Dimoka, director of Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making,” Foster says. Dimoka measured the brain activity of volunteers participating in combinatorial auctions -- a daunting type of auction requiring participants to quickly bid on an overwhelming number of items. The study showed, Foster says, that when inundated with too many factors, a biological process takes place in the brain -- activity suddenly drops in the region responsible for smart decision-making -- causing us to make very poor decisions. Avoid decision fatigue by trying to keep things simple.
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SEEK INPUT FROM OTHERS WHO ALREADY DID THE RESEARCH
The careful approach of discussing the problem with a knowledgeable partner can be a crucial part of decision-making, says Amy Baxter, a clinical associate professor at the Medical College of Georgia. For example, she found that the more injections children between the ages of four and six received on one day, the significantly greater the chance they would be afraid of needles five years later -- and would be less likely to get the HPV series as teens. These fearful children, therefore, experienced health consequences as a result of a dubious decision; that is, numerous vaccines in one day. One way to reach a decision, such as deciding how to vaccinate your child, is to engage in dialog with an expert -- in this case, your pediatrician. Take advantage of others’ education: Discuss the consequences and options of any decision with an experienced source.
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ENTER WITH AN EMPTY STOMACH
The next time you’re faced with an important decision, perhaps you should try skipping a meal before making it. A 2014 paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE, tested whether or not hunger affects strategic decision-making. Surprisingly, the results of the experiment showed those who were hungry made more advantageous choices during uncertain outcomes than those who are sated. It also showed that “hungry participants were better able to appreciate future big rewards in a delay discounting task; and that, in spite of their perception of increased rewarding value of both food and monetary objects, hungry participants were not more inclined to take risks to get the object of their desire.”
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THINK LIKE A WOMAN
If you want to make expedient, judicious decisions, perhaps you should think like a woman. A McMaster University study published in the International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics surveyed more than 600 male and female board directors and found women often make more equitable, advantageous decisions -- particularly when competing interests are at stake -- than men do. Men, the research showed, are inclined to follow rules, regulations and tradition when making decisions, while women are less bound by such restrictions. Additionally, not only were the female directors more inquisitive and able to perceive a greater number of possible solutions than the male directors, but they were also more likely to consider the rights and opinions of those around them and to use a cooperative, collaborative approach more often and more effectively than the men did in the study.
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TRIAL AND ERROR
“‘Modern’ or ‘new’ doesn’t always equal perfect,” says psychiatrist Taliba M. Foster, M.D., “so don’t eschew time-honored research methods.” Science reminds us that simple trial and error -- which actually dates back to our origins as human beings -- can make a decision remarkably easy, she says. “Depending on the situation, trial and error may be a pragmatic way to decide if a decision has too many opportunities for failure.” During a 1998 interview, theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson offered an example of this involving bicycles: “There were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we’ve been building them for 100 years, it’s very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works -- it’s even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error we found out how to do it, and the error was essential.”
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
What are your thoughts on how science can help us make better decisions? Do you plan on trying any of the suggestions here, or have you already done so? Did you find it helped you? Can you think of other ways science might assist us in making more advantageous decisions? Share your thoughts with the Livestrong.com community in the comments section below.
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