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The Most Common Decision-Making Trap

Updated: Mar 26

Think about the last really important decision you had to make. Do you remember what it was? Do you remember how you made the decision?

In 1838, Charles Darwin, then 29, faced one of the most important decisions of his life. It had nothing to do with evolutions or natural selection. The decision he was grappling with was whether he should get married. 

So, he did what most of us have done at one point or another. He made a list of pros and cons on the back of a letter. He carefully considered the pros of marriage such as having a “constant companion,” “charms of music & female chit-chat” and "someone to take care of the house." In the "Not Marry" column was "freedom to go where one likes," "conversations of clever men at clubs" and "not forced to visit relatives."

Darwin's original notes displayed in the Darwin Archive in Cambridge University Library.

While it’s hard to read, you can see the headings of Marry on the left and Not Marry on the right. The fine folks at the University of Cambridge transcribed his notes. Among other things, Darwin determined that having a wife was better than a dog.  He married Emma Wedgwood on January 29 of the following year.

Charles Darwin and his newly wed wife, Emma.

Despite the leaps and bounds we’ve made in understanding cognition and human behavior, the "Pros and Cons" list remains the most common way to make a decision. The problem is that either/or choices aren't designed to generate additional alternatives.


What would a smarter executive decision making process look like?


In the early 1980s, a business school professor named Paul Nutt analyzed 78 decisions made by senior managers in the United States and Canada. These managers worked in a variety of fields such as insurance companies, government agencies, hospitals, consulting firms.


He found that only 29 percent of organizations considered more than one alternative when making important strategic decisions. Just adding one additional option can pay great dividends. Nutt found that adding another option made it six times more likely that the decision would later be rated as ‘highly successful.’


Research shows that people seek out information that confirms existing beliefs and avoid information that might contradict them. This is confirmation bias is particularly dangerous when faced with a difficult decision.

We've all been there. Stuck facing choices you don't want or like. Perhaps spending too much time gathering data and stats, and shy away from actually making the decision. People often dread making a final decision because of fear, doubt, uncertainty, or anxiety about making "the wrong decision." One of the the most common decision-making traps is limiting your options. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box to unpack what other options might exist.

Hard decisions often require seeing the issue from a different perspective to discover options and possibilities that we didn’t even know existed. Instead of trying to decide between this or that, shift your focus to generate alternative solutions.

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” - Albert Einstein

Economist Thomas Schelling once said “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination is to create a list of things that would never occur to him.” The challenge, then, with difficult decisions is to

So the next time you have to make a tough decision, expand your pool of options and stretch your way of thinking. Ask someone you trust to argue against your position. Maybe you'll uncover solutions you wouldn't otherwise have thought of.

Choice fatigue: The best decision-makers don't just know how to make them, they know when to make them. There is a wealth of literature about the very real effects of decision fatigue. Unfortunately, it happens to all of us and even small decisions add up and drain your mental resources.


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