Decision making difficulties

by eusebiusandflorestan

Certain decisions are easily made and require almost no thinking at all. Most decisions in everyday life appear to be of this kind; it’s almost like you don’t even notice that you are deciding. Like buying milk. There might be different brands, but you just grab the one you always buy without conducting a cost-benefit analysis of prize, taste, volume etc. Small choices that will not have a lot of impact on your life tend to be easy.

Other decisions are more complicated and require more thinking. These are generally larger in scope; partner, work, accommodation, education are examples. Their importance does not necessarily mean they are harder to make. Some people are almost suspiciously certain on who to marry or what profession they aim for. However, grave indecisiveness seems naturally more common for decisions of greater importance, and less common for decisions of minor importance (note that the latter does occur: consider playing a board game with someone who is really slow when it’s their turn. They just sit and ponder the next turn forever. Irritating!).

A good friend and university employee was recently offered a new job at another university. The two employments had different pros and cons: The job he presently held was easier and predictable to him as he had been working there for the last ten years, whereas the new university was more prestigious and offered a higher salary and a more challenging type of work. My friend was simply and utterly unable to make a decision. He spent day and night attempting, and unfortunately failing, to reach a conclusion. If he did make up his mind, he rapidly changed it within minutes to the despair of his equally amused and irritated wife.

Coming off crazy, I suggested the following self-invented strategy inspired by Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA). The objective with the model is to remove unclarity in any decision making process and can be applied to any decision one can ever think of. What a lovely universality. Let me exemplify with a simple application of the model inspired by my friend’s job indecisiveness:


A. Interesting job (50%)

B. Salary  (25%)

C. Nice colleagues (25%)

In this example, A-C are the only factors important to my friend. In reality, this list tend to be very long. The identification of important factors, and the relative weighting of these is done subjectively by the decision maker. Obviously the sum has to be 100%, representing 100% of what is important to the decision.

Scoring on a scale from 1-5: 

Job 1:                              Job 2:

A. 2                                  A. 1

B. 3                                  B. 5

C. 5                                  C. 2

Also scoring is done by the decision maker subjectively.

Job 1: (2 * 0,50) + (3*0,25) + (5 * 0,25) = 3

Job 2:  (1 * 0,50) + (5*0,25) + (2 * 0,25) = 2,25

The result shows that job 1 is the best decision.

I like this model in theory. When I created it, I dubbed myself a genius. Who could possibly have problems taking decisions with this clever model? In practice I have bitterly discovered there are a number of issues, and that my so called genius mind was merely a mix of hubris and naivety.

(1) The identification and weighting of different factors can be very, very difficult to spell out accurately. They are often not incrementally coherent. For example, a factor such as salary. If one have a salary of zero, then that factor is probably more highly weighted than if the score is let’s say 2 or 3. Im sure there is a way to solve this particular issue by making the model more sophisticated, however I do not have the energy to think about that now. Perhaps another time with more coffee in my veins 🙂

(2) Unknown future elements can sometimes make it impossible to give scores. A solution is to set an interval (for example, worst case scenario on ‘colleagues’ is 2, best case scenario 4. then 2-4 is set).

(3) Also when the future is known, Scoring and weighting can be very difficult. A quantification of often qualitative aspects must be done. How? This is a subjective enterprise, difficult for the weak-minded.

(4) The fourth issue is the most serious one. The underlying assumption of the model is that indecisiveness is due to an unstructured mind. The answer is somewhere, it just needs to be ‘sorted out’. This appear to be wrong. An unstructured indecisiveness in the human mind appear to just result in an unstructured, indecisive model!!! After testing it on a few people, for example the friend selecting between the two jobs, I have noticed the following, perhaps not very surprising correlation: decisive mind/gut feeling = model formulation is easy. Indecisive mind/ gut feeling= Model formulation difficult. The model hence results to be a mirror of the mind. If this is the case, the decision model is useless.

E, is flipping a coin better??