Making better decisions

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When our lives fall out of balance our decision making will suffer. Psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann developed a theory of decision making under stress which describes five patterns of coping behaviour dependent on the degree of decisional conflict and stress involved. It seems that both extremely low and extremely high stress levels lead to poor decision making while moderate levels of stress are more likely to result in carefully made decisions.

In Janis & Mann’s first scenario no decisional conflict is perceived and little or no stress experienced. The individual complacently chooses to continue with a current course of action while ignoring any information about potential risks or losses.

The second scenario arises where an individual reacts to a challenge or threat by precipitously switching to a new course of action without giving the matter much thought. Her strategy is the uncritical adoption of whichever new course of action she considers most relevant, or has been most strongly recommended to her.  Again, the belief that no risk is involved means there is no conflict regarding alternative choices and accordingly little or no stress.

The third scenario occurs when a person believes there are serious risks involved both in staying with a current course of action and in moving to a new one.  A state of decisional conflict arises, compounded by pessimism about finding a good solution to the dilemma. The individual then attempts to reduce this distressing emotional state by one of three strategies collectively labelled ‘defensive avoidance’:

  • Procrastination enables her to postpone the decision, turning her attention away from the conflict to other, less distressing matters.
  • Shifting responsibility to someone else (buckpassing) enables her to evade the dilemma and provides her with a handy scapegoat should the decision turn out poorly.
  • Inventing fanciful rationalisations in support of one of the alternative choices she wards off stress by selectively attending to only the good aspects of that alternative and by ignoring negative information about it.

In the fourth scenario the stress is further increased by the severity of risk inherent in competing courses of action. The decision maker believes a better solution might be found, but also that she has insufficient time to search for and evaluate that solution – compounding her distress. She adopts a strategy of ‘hypervigilance‘, impulsively seizing a hastily contrived solution which appears to offer immediate relief and overlooking the full implication of her choice. In its most extreme form, this state of hypervigilance looks like panic.

The fifth scenario – considered the optimum by Janis & Mann – is one of vigilance. The decision-maker is in a state of mental conflict since she recognises there are serious risks associated with the competing alternatives.  However, she is also able to confine the stress surrounding her decision-making to moderate levels, confident that she will find an adequate solution and believing she has adequate time to do so.

What can you do if you recognise the behaviour described in scenarios two to four either in yourself or in your work colleagues? Firstly, you need to realise that the very stresses which are causing faulty decision making are also likely to inhibit the recognition that someone is under extreme stress. Following a good stress management routine will help.

Secondly, recognise that time pressures increase the stress in decision-making.  However, it’s the perception of having too little, rather than the amount of time itself, which is important. Tell yourself that you have enough time; and if you genuinely feel this is not the case then ask those who are waiting for your decision(s) for an extension.

Finally, try not to be too hard on yourself. None of us is perfect, and nobody can predict exactly how a complex decision will turn out. Recognise that even with a strategy of vigilance you may not always get it right. And keep in mind the wise words of Theodore Roosevelt who observed that “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything“.