The scientific art of decision-making

Making the right call, especially under stress, requires understanding the workings of the brain – and removing bias. Moran Cerf, neuroscientist and professor at Kellogg School of Management explains how to improve the decision-making process.

‘For every brain, there exists the ideal conditions for making decisions. The parameters are external, eg. what time of day it is, whether you’re tired, whether you’re alone. The question is, how do you find out the optimum conditions for your brain – and then negotiate that with others in your team? Neuroscience allows you to learn it by looking at the profile of your brain; obviously, a privilege not everyone has access to. But there is a cruder way of making inferences: data in the diary. We can easily keep track of our decisions and analyse them.’

01. ’Start a diary for the next week. Write down every decision you have to make, big or small, as you make them. Write down what the other options were and all the conditions you made your decision under; what you infer from the situation.’

02. ’A week after making each choice, look at the entire list and rank them in terms of how good a decision you feel they’ve proven to be. Now you have a list of choices, conditions and outcomes.’

03. ’Do basic analytics of that: “In those choices I was most happy with, I was X, Y and Z”. This is inference in a way, but you still have some sense of situations. You’ll cover a lot of decisions and a lot of circumstances – from one week you’ll have enough data to get a sense of who you are.’

Managing doubt

‘Relying on data reduces doubt but doubt is not necessarily bad. What research tells us is that we need to separate it from risk. A lot of decisions involve risk, you just want to take risky decisions with high certainty. We’re biased to the effects of recency; we see what has happened recently and think it always happens – something humans often resort to.’

Removing bias

‘Many of us have intuitions about who we are and why we do what we do – these may or may not be right. In the same vein, a lot of companies infer what worked before will work continuously; we have models of reality drawn from experience but we never test them again. The key is to experiment – try things for a few hours or days and see what works. Even in a big company, small-scale experimenting is the way to go. A sole thinker is naturally more prone to biases, but we are never on our own: we have friends, family, even customers. Ask, question and experiment with them.’

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