Every day we make hundreds of seemingly minor decisions on what to eat, what to wear and what to do with our time. Yet the process we use when making those insignificant decisions can reveal a lot about how we make larger, time sensitive, high-stakes choices in our personal and professional lives. Jennifer Phillips, Gary Klein and Winston Sieck examined how we make decisions and how our intuition can guide the process in “Expertise in Judgment and Decision Making: A Case for Training Intuitive Decision Skills”.
What We Know About Decision Making
Cognitive scientists who have studied decision making in humans for decades have theorized that many of the decisions we make are based on past, personal experience or biases. As a result, many of us subconsciously take shortcuts when we are making decisions. These mental shortcuts, called heuristics, help us focus on one aspect of a decision while disregarding the rest in order to make rapid choices without becoming paralyzed by our options or other variables. For instance, you may have had raw onion on a hamburger once and not liked how it tasted. You therefore concluded that you do not like all onion, regardless of the variety and how it is prepared. From that time forward, you may bypass any food that contains onion based on your bias. You have created a mental shortcut based on your experience so when you encounter that choice again, the decision is seemingly already made.
There is one problem with making decisions this way. Humans tend to let their biases govern their decision making ability without looking rationally at the options. Scientists suggest that suspending biases can allow for more rational decision making based on more than our perception and mental shortcuts. For instance, if you ate a hamburger with raw onion and didn’t like it, but suspended your bias against onions long enough to taste French onion soup, you may discover that your hatred for raw onion does not extend to the gently sauteed version of the vegetable. The process of recognizing and then suspending a bias seems to be exactly how experts become experts in their field. When they encounter new information, they examine it rationally, incorporate it into their experience and make decisions based both on their knowledge and the new information. In other words, their intuition is not something an expert inherently has, but something they work for.
So, how do I hone my intuitive skills to make better decisions?
While intuition often masquerades as knowledge and expertise, we would never suggest that you should become an expert in every field in order to make better decisions in your life. There are not enough hours in the day or days in a lifetime to learn everything there is to know about everything. (Not to mention the idea of that kind of study is exhausting.) There are, however, key takeaways in how experts approach the process and make choices that everyone can incorporate into their decision making practice.
1. Embrace the process.
Every expert in their field started out as a novice. As expertise is developed, awkward efforts become consistent and efficient, accurate and complete. You cannot skip over the awkwardness, but it can be made less cumbersome if you approach decision making the way you approach learning any new skill. Expect your first efforts to be weird and even wrong but look for the learning that can come from them.
2. Take time to consider the situation.
Experts tend to spend more time considering a situation than figuring out their course of action. Novices tend to do the exact opposite. Remember, heuristics are mental short cuts that help us make decisions faster but not necessarily better unless we put the time into acquiring the expertise. Suspending a bias and gathering information takes more time than jumping to a conclusion but can help you consider factors you might otherwise overlook.
3. Spot the atypical.
Experts have a broad and deep knowledge of their subject matter that can help them spot aspects of a situation that may be out of the ordinary. That depth of knowledge can then help them assess the atypical parts of the situation and determine both what to do and how those parts can affect the outcome. On the other hand, novices tend to force the atypical to fit their decision rather than allowing the process to guide them to a new solution. Rather than trying to cram that square peg into a round hole, look for a square hole in another location.
4. Run mental simulations.
Once you have spent time assessing the situation and spotted aspects that may not be typical, it is time to run a mental simulation. Based on your past 6 and what you know to be true, imagine a variety of configurations that combine this with what might happen. This is where experts use their knowledge of statistical probability to rule out the more far fetched scenarios and focus on more likely outcomes. You likely did this constantly during school. Yes, an Art History 101 teacher may ask you to name all of the impressionist painters of the 19th century in alphabetical order, but he is more likely to test you on what impressionism is and the most notable contributors to the movement. Chances are, you focused on what was most likely to appear on the test.
5. Take your own strengths and weaknesses into account.
Biases can provide valuable, experience-based insight, but they can also stunt our growth as decision makers. If you truly want to be a better decision maker, you must spend time examining your own biases in the form of your strengths, weaknesses and personal blind spots. If you don’t feel you have any, ask your best friend, significant other or boss to help you uncover some. Then, when faced with a decision, be sure to ask whether your personal bias is affecting your ability to see the situation for what it is.
6. Practice and feedback, repeat.
As in anything in life, decision making skills require deliberate practice in order to achieve any level of expertise. Yet that deliberate practice is of little effect if it is not paired with coaching and feedback. We’re not talking about outcome feedback once a decision has been made. Researchers have discovered that this is the least effective type since it does not provide any real insight into what you can do better along the way. Instead, search out process feedback from experts who can provide insight into changes to your approach that might yield a better outcome.
Intuitive decision making may seem mystical and unattainable except by those who are experts in their fields, but it is a skill that can be honed by anyone with insight, practice and a willingness to learn along the way.
Klein, G. (1998). Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. MIT Press.
Phillips, J. K., Klein, G., & Sieck, W. R. (2004). Expertise in judgment and decision making: A case for training intuitive decision skills. In D. J. Koehler & N. Harvey (Eds.), Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making.