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Mai 2020 − Dossier



In times of unlimited options, we must decide – a thousand times a day. Our approach is not always entirely rational. Emotions tend to muscle their way in. Simple rules of thumb may help us make the better choice.


To bounce out of bed or to turn over one more time? As soon as the morning alarm goes off, the first decision needs to be made. Am I going to wear the sweater or a T-shirt? What’s for breakfast – cereal or toast? Will I take the bus or the train? Even before the day has really started, we have made hundreds of decisions. Until we turn off the light at night, it amounts to roughly 35,000 decisions, write American neurologists Barbara Sahakian and Jamie Nicole LaBuzetta in their book “Bad Moves: How decision making goes wrong, and the ethics of smart drugs“. We make some decisions quickly, based on gut feelings, whereas others give us a major headache. What is it that influences our decision-making, and how do we arrive at good results?

Until far into the 20th century, we were convinced humans make purely rational decisions. Prior to making important decisions, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, was in the habit of listing all advantages and disadvantages. He then weighed the arguments on a scale of 1 to 10, according to importance and probability. Underneath each column, he drew a line, added up the scores – and the decision was made. In 1772, Franklin wrote in a letter to a scientist looking for advice that it was this technique which allowed him to reach the best conclusions.


The heart and the mind decide

Research by neurologist Antonio Damasio finally put the discussion to rest: the cool head alone is incapable of making any decision, and most models of rationality do not successfully reflect actual decision-making behavior. It was by pure chance that, in the 1980s, the head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa discovered that emotions play a large part in the decision-making process. One of Damasio’s patients who, after the removal of a brain tumor, had been rendered unable to feel emotions, was also left incapable of making any kind of decision. For hours, he would ponder whether to use the black pen or the blue one. According to Damasio’s hypothesis, reasoning depends on our ability to feel. Latest research has shown that not only reasoning and emotions, but also prejudices and experiences, even hormones, the time of day or sales tricks influence our decisions.

Naturally, these turn out at times more, at times less astute. But what drives us to decisions that we later regret? A common mistake: we ask friends or members of our families for advice. “Our personal choices systematically differ from the choices we make for others and from the advice we give to our friends”, Psychologist Eva Krockow from the University of Leicester cautions. “Psychological studies found that people frequently encourage friends to take risks, which they themselves would typically shy away from”, says Krockow. Many possible reasons exist: the “advisor” has more confidence in the friend who seeks advice than they have in themselves they want to encourage the friend in their personal opinion; or they simply misjudge the friend’s situation. Krockow advises: “Being aware of differences in the decision-making for oneself and others is key to interpreting advice correctly and making more balanced decisions.”


Lots of bad advice

In accordance with the “sunk cost effect“, humans tend to hold on to decisions into which they have already invested time or money – even if they have already recognized that the choice is flawed. According to a new study, the fear of personal consequences in management leads to “CYA”-excuses; for example, the internal applicant is offered a promotion over a better qualified external applicant. In this way, the manager avoids conflict, but he ends up damaging the company. “Defensive decisions not only incur considerable additional cost, but they also impact innovation, leadership and customer satisfaction”, says Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max-Planck-Institute for Educational Research in Potsdam.

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Freedom of choice as a challenge

On a daily basis, it is mainly too much choice that complicates our lives. Finding a partner on a dating platform? Choosing a movie from among thousands? Choice turns into torture very quickly. “People tend to want as many options as possible. Whether it’s buying a car or a meal, they gravitate toward companies that offer more options versus fewer ones, because they believe a large selection will maximize their chances of finding the best fit”, explains stress researcher Thomas Saltsman of the Social Psychophysiology Laboratory at New York State University. “When it comes to actually making a decision from all of these options, people can become paralyzed – and avoid making choices altogether”, says Saltsman. And it can get worse. “When they finally do come to a decision, they’re more dissatisfied and regretful about whatever choice they make.”

Now, what may help us make the best decisions in this sea of possibilities? Studies have shown that comprehensive information tends to confuse rather than help. For example, instead of comparing 500 toothbrushes prior to an online purchase, psychologists like Gigerenzer suggest simple “heuristics”. These are rules of thumb that help us come to a quick and acceptable solution despite little time and limited knowledge. I could simply buy the toothbrush that I know. A different heuristic: I will only search until I find an acceptable – even if not the best – solution. I can also orient myself along the choices that my friends make. Or I make a decision based on my most important criterion. When booking a hotel, for example, I will only consider proximity to the train station and ignore everything else.


Sleeping on it overnight!

Today, science agrees on one thing: good decisions require heart as well as mind. Frequently, intuition corrects a seemingly sound and sensible decision – and vice versa. Those who aim to resist the ubiquitous temptations, for example while shopping, are best advised to trust not only their gut but also do their math. Stock market celebrity André Kostolany swore by the following strategy: he intensely studied an investment and then used his imagination to forecast performance and price development. And then he slept on important decisions for a night: “The evening is when you have the idea, the morning is for a critical stance, and by noon, the decision is made.”




60% of decisions are made unconsciously even before you become aware of them.

81% of the respondents in a study claim to rely on their brains when making important decisions.

35,000 Number of decisions every person makes each day.



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