Making better decisions: “which” versus “whether”

this way or that way sign

Most decisions we make are whether to do this or to do that. “Whether” decisions frame actions in isolation as go/no-go choices. It turns out that many of the worst decisions are “whether” decisions, writes Don Moore in Perfectly Confident.

When choices are framed in this way we tend to neglect opportunity costs. We fail to consider what the alternatives are and what we could do if we don’t take the action we’re considering. It’s remarkably easy to ignore opportunity costs but by adding more choices to consider, they reveal themselves in a far more tangible way.

This was first studied by Paul Nutt, a business school professor at Ohio State in the 1980s. Nutt categorized this as a “rush to judgment blunder” that happens when people identify a problem and latch onto the first solution that appears. Problem/solution pairing is a kind of motivated reasoning under pressure—solving for having a solution as fast as possible rather than being able to consider a range of options. 

“Managers seem to believe that concerns and solutions come in pairs. They fear the threat of an unresolved concern. As the pressure mounts, managers find it nearly impossible not to grab the first solution that they find.”

Paul Nutt, Ohio State

It can be difficult to imagine alternative options but diversity helps. As you search for other options, more perspectives will not only help come up with more factors that are important or alternative causes, it will be easier to see previously unimagined alternatives. Diversity is perhaps the secret weapon in widening the possibility space.

If you find yourself stuck with only one path, Dan and Chip Heath offer a counter-intuitive tip, in their book Decisive. Conduct a thought experiment where you deliberately restrict your options. Imagine the path is blocked; what would you do?

Removing options can in fact do people a favor because it makes them notice that they’re stuck on one small patch of a wide landscape.

Heath brothers

There is a strong correlation between the number of alternatives considered and the success of the decision. Every time you are faced with a “whether” decision, you are far more likely to make a better decision if you can make it a “which” decision instead.

This article is one in a series of hacks, tips and tricks for making better decisions.

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