Forking road

Make better decisions with delayed decision making

Do you ever make bad decisions in the heat of the moment? That is a rhetorical question: I know that you do. Why? Because everyone does. There is not a human alive who is immune to the influence that emotions have on our decisions.

How do we counter this? The answer is a very simple one: we take some time to think about it. Sounds obvious, right? But, as ever, it is one thing to know that, and another thing to put it into practice.

When do we make poor decisions?

For anxiety sufferers, we are no stranger to making poor decisions. We often make choices when we are experiencing anxiety and panic that we would not make in a different emotional state. We even chastise ourselves for the decisions we make, compared to the option a "normal" person would have chosen.

When we are anxious, our lower reasoning takes over. It does not care what the higher reasoning centres of the brain say: it is determined to avoid danger and is not that interested in the facts surrounding the decisions because analysis in those would take too long.

Hence we panic when we see the spider, find ourselves at a party, or look out over the side of the high building. Our higher reasoning knows there is no actual danger, but the limbic system is not listening.

It is not just when we are feeling anxious that we make poor decisions, though. More often, it is when we are in a positive mood that we make poor decisions as well.

How many times have you embarked on a project, only to later give up because it was more effort than it was worth? How about buying something that you later regretted?

It could be that new information came to light. However, more often, it is because our reasoning was compromised. With buying things, we are chasing the dopamine rush you get when you purchase something. We imagine how awesome it will be to own the item. Then, once we have bought it, the dopamine hit subsides and we realise the product will not change our life after all.

Similarly, with projects, we start off with a huge amount of excitement and enthusiasm. We blind ourselves to all of the hard work that, deep down, we know it will involve. It is only when the elation subsides, and we face the reality that we realise it was not a great decision.

How do emotions affect our decisions?

Emotions are at the very core of all of our decision making.

We like to think that we are rational agents who occasionally make bad decisions. However, in The Believing Brain1, Michael Shermer argues that we make all of our decisions for emotional reasons, and justify them later with facts.

Study after study has shown that a wide range of factors affects our decisions. In one of the most chilling examples, a research paper looked at how food affected the decisions of judges reviewing parole.

They found that just before lunch, when the judge had not eaten for a long time, they rarely granted a prisoner parole. However, just after lunch when their blood sugar was high, they were far more likely to grant it2.

Technology has allowed marketers to investigate decision-making to a greater degree than ever before. Websites do split tests to see what audiences respond to the best. Sometimes these are significant changes, such as different headlines and offers.

However, sometimes it is something as simple as changing the colour of a button. The surprising fact is how much of an effect this has. Changing a button from red to green can increase the number of users who complete a sign-up form by up to 10%.

Why is this? Clearly not because of any rational process. Our brain is using shortcuts to make decisions. It is relying on feelings.

These are just a few examples that show how we are feeling can affect our decisions. The critical point is that we can be affected and this happens far more often than we would like to admit.

Recognising an emotional state

It is hard to spot that your decision making has been compromised because of the time since our last meal or the colour used. However, I suspect that often we are somewhat aware of our emotional state.

When starting a new project or considering pulling out our wallet, for example, we know we are excited. When panicking, we are often able to spot that we are experiencing anxiety.

These should be red flags to making decisions. When we spot ourselves in these situations, it is time to slow things down.

Why we need to cool off

When we spot that we are in an emotional state, it is time to put the breaks on our decision making. Why? Because we know that we make sub-optimal decisions this way. Our decisions may end well, but we will often regret them.

To counter this, we need a cooling off period. We need to sleep on the idea for a couple of days and then see if we still think it is a good idea.

How does this help? It allows some of the excitement or anxiety to pass (or any other emotion we are experiencing) and take a more objective view of the situation.

Think of it like asking a friend. They will be able to look at the facts and give you a second opinion without the biases of your emotions. Asking someone else is an excellent way to make better decisions. However, if you do it in the heat of the moment, you are unlikely to listen.

Your future self is like a friend from the future. They have some disadvantages: they still have the same biases as you do. However, they also have one advantage: the ability to be honest with you in a way that your friends may not be comfortable with.

If you get a week down the line and it turns out the idea is a terrible one, few people are likely to be as blunt about that fact as your future self.

How to put this into practice

The steps are as follows:

  1. Recognise you are making a decision in an emotional state: are you excited, anxious, etc. Of course, we constantly experience emotions, but there is often a heat of the moment.
  2. Remind yourself that this causes bad decisions and you need a cooling off period. Take a few days to think about it.
  3. Reconsider the facts in a more objective light. If it still feels like a good idea, then go for it! If not, you have saved yourself from a bad decision.

Note that I am not saying that you have to consider everything in the cold light of reason, as a Vulcan. If a week rolls around and you still really want the impractical red shoes, go for it. You can make choices with your heart.

What we are looking to avoid here is that immediate decision making that you regret sooner rather than later. We want to make sure that there is sustained interest in the item or project, even if you struggle to justify it on a pros and cons list.

It is also worth noting that marketers know people make impulsive decisions and play into that. "Today only" and "sale ends soon" are deliberately designed to avoid you having the time to cool off. I usually avoid these snap decisions. That means sometimes I miss an offer and have to pay more for items I decide to buy anyway. However, I save more than I spend, in all the money I don't spend on things I do not want.

Give me several real-world examples

I run into this all of the time. I will not dwell on the bad purchasing decisions I have made (though my wardrobe is full of impractical red shoes!). I will list some of the better decisions I have made, though.

I wanted a KitchenAid stand mixer. They are gorgeous. However, the Kenwood stand mixer is half the price, has more features and gets a better write-up. The choice here is obvious, but it was not an easy decision. I had to sit on it for months before I finally bought the Kenwood. Now I am constantly using all of the extra features it comes with.

Another example: I thought about doing a daily video for Worfolk Anxiety. It was such an exciting project. Putting together the titles, format, ideas, etc. However, I also had a blog and a podcast that needed attention.

I wanted to sack them off and concentrate on the video project. That would be my focus. Realistically, though, what would have happened was that it would have been quickly replaced by some other exciting project and I would have another half-baked scheme on the scrap heap.

Taking a week to think about it, I realised this and decided to concentrate on my existing channels. We may launch video at some point, but it will not be daily, to begin with!

How to avoid worrying about it

One final trap to watch out for: spending days or weeks worrying about a decision. Once again, I am a sucker for this.

Worrying does not improve our decision making. Once we have all of the facts, the only thing that can improve it is new information. However, it is easy to use the week "cooling off" to go over and over on it in our mind.

That is not what we are trying to do here. We need space: we need to think about something else so that we can lose the emotional attachment to the decision and consider it more rationally.

Therefore, we need to watch out for this worry and combat it. Recognise you need to cool off, then think about something else for a few days. If you are worried you will forget the facts, write them down in a pros and cons list. You cannot divorce yourself from the emotional until your mind has moved on to something else for a little while.

Conclusion

Emotions have a significant impact on our decision making. This happens constantly but is more apparent in some situations, especially when considering whether to start a new project or make a purchase.

In these situations, we need to recognise that our emotions are running high and using the concept of a cooling off period to allow us to make a more rational decision.

Doing this may take a little longer, but allows us to reduce the number of decisions that we later regret.

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Published 11 September 2017. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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References

  1. Michael Shermer. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. ISBN: 0805091254. ↩︎

  2. Ben Bryant. Judges are more lenient after taking a break, study finds. The Guardian. 11 April 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2011/apr/11/judges-lenient-break ↩︎