If there’s something that characterises human beings is that their whole life roams through a constant process of decision making, not only regarding basic needs or situations with short-term impact –what to eat, what to wear, etc.- but also more complex ones –which political party to vote for, where to invest savings, either to accept or refuse a job offer, or to undergo a surgical procedure, for instance- whose consequences leave a long-term mark, sometimes permanent and irreversible.

The dilemma between emotion and reason

For at least 2 500 years, thinkers and scientists have been interested in knowing how people’s brains operate when having to choose the right path. During almost 20 centuries Plato’s classical formula prevailed, according to which the soul of a human being is in constant conflict, torn between reason and emotion, which is considered the motive behind mistakes ultimately. However, modern science, mainly from the 20th century onwards –with the development of psychology and neurosciences- has evinced that, as a matter of fact, the process is quite more complex.

American neuroscientist and popularizer Jonah Lehrer, author of the book “How We Decide”, considers that best decisions are the result of a mixture of feelings and reason, whose balance depends on a particular situation that requires a choice among several options.

Contrary to what classical philosophers did, emotions shouldn’t be neglected, according to Lehrer, as they gain great prominence during thought process. They’re positive even when mistakes are made, since “unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models”.

Best, in group: six thinking hats

Another key factor to make good decisions would be not to do it on your own. According to a study by the University of Sidney, animals act quicker and decide more precisely in group. The study draws from an experiment conducted around fish, but researchers consider that the results can be translatable to humans.

The collective decision-making process is particularly valuable within business environments. And it can be the subject of a method like the one created three decades ago by psychologist Edward de Bono, father of the so-called “lateral thinking”: six thinking hats.

By using hats, the method builds a metaphor of the changes undergone by chemical elements in the brain when dealing with decisions. It is considered currently as one of the most creative techniques for collective decision making.

Hence, hats represent various directions of thought and each member of the group can put on or take off the hat –physically or fictitiously- to indicate what kind of thought he is utilizing during his contribution to the brainstorming session in which a certain option must be chosen:

  • The white hat represents neutrality: the person wearing it provides objective information about the subject under consideration, without making any value judgements.
  • The red hat represents emotional thinking: the person wearing it can express his feelings freely, not having to justify himself.
  • The black hat represents negative thinking: the person wearing it expresses the worst vision possible of the issue, bringing all the potential risks to the table.
  • The yellow hat, in contrast, is used to give free rein to positive thinking: the participant wearing it will provide an argument both constructive and thoughtful at the same time.
  • The green hat, for its part, is the one representing creative thinking: the mission of its bearer is to give imaginative ideas.
  • The blue hat is the one used both at the beginning and the end of the brainstorming session, representing control of thought process. The duty of the person wearing it is to coordinate the decision-making process from start to finish.

Math has a say in decision making, too…

One of the scientists with a greater impact on the study of the world of decision making, however, was neither a neurologist or a psychologist, but a mathematician who inspired the movie A Beautiful Mind: the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences John Nash. He revolutionized Game Theory, which can be considered as the science of decisions, mainly in the field of economics, since it establishes that the process is influenced not only by individual perspective, but also by the presumption of how other people involved in the reality of a decision making process will react or what they will decide. In order to understand Nash’s Equilibrium theory, the best thing to do is to take a look at his Prisoner’s Dilemma.

How to make good decisions in business environments

Making decisions is an integral part of management within companies. And not everybody is fit for the part. That purpose demands a series of requirements such as a defined leadership style, the ability to motivate teams, a global business approach, responsiveness in the face of challenges and the ability to plan ahead.

Silvia Sánchez, professional brand consultant and digital strategy coach, summarizes the most common strategies in order to make decisions effectively:

  1. Be aware of what is the in-house decision making system: it’s not the same to do it alone or collectively, quickly or calmly, etc.
  2. Have a panoramic view, not focusing on “the obvious or the shiniest” only.
  3. Look for conflicting information “that challenges your ideas and proves that you’re wrong”.
  4. Work with an attitude of full observation, opening your eyes to things that “otherwise you could overlook”.
  5. Count on the cooperation of a team member capable of challenging your prejudices.
  6. Find experts with no personal interests on the subject about which a decision must be made.

A final piece of advice that anyone should take into account about decision making is learning to live with mistakes. As pointed out by doctor Mila Cahue, author of El Cerebro Feliz (The Happy Brain), “we don’t like to make mistakes but, sometimes, we don’t have any other choice”.

Sources: El Mundo, Muy Interesante and EAE Business School

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