Time to Read: 7:42 minutes
Having trouble choosing between 2 or 3 ‘good’ options?
When college students are offered a choice between a ‘desired option’ and a ‘much less desired option’ (attend a lecture by a famous author OR study at the library), they chose the ‘much less desired’ option 21% of the time. When a third option is added, one equally as desirable as the first option (watch a foreign film they’ve been dying to see), the college students picked the ‘much less desired option’ (studying), 40% of the time! (Tversky, 1992)
We all have a tendency to pick less favorable options when faced several good options. This is due to what psychologists call ‘decision paralysis’.
When choosing between two ‘good’ options we’re more likely to select a third option that is clearly ‘less good’ simply because we don’t want the discomfort of having to decide between two similar options.
Economists recommend that we use a cost-benefit analysis approach to our decisions – weigh the options according to their expected value and pick the most rational option. However, a cost-benefit analysis can often be a laborious task when trying to differentiate between similar options. In many situations we either don’t have enough information to distinguish between two of more ‘good’ options OR we simply don’t have the time and energy to do so. As a result, we typically rely on our ‘default mode’ to make decisions for us.
After decades of research, behavior economists and psychologists have discovered that human behavior is guided by a collection of heuristics (mental shortcuts) and cognitive biases (thinking preferences). These fallacies and biases often operate without awareness and dictate the majority of our decision-making (you can find a complete list of biases here).
Two common ‘mental shortcuts’ are loss aversion and cognitive ease. The brain is constantly fighting to avoid loss and maintain the status quo. It also wants to conserve energy and take the path of least effort. The result? We avoid tough decisions and end up doing the easiest thing, instead of the most important thing.
You may think that knowing what you should do and having a pre-defined set of goals is enough to ensure you’re making the right decisions from moment the moment…but it’s not.
In one series of interviews led by William F. Pounds of MIT, managers were asked to share the important problems they were facing in their organizations. Most managers mentioned five to eight problems. Later in the interview, they were asked to describe their activities from the previous week. Pounds shared the punch line that “no manager reported any activity which could be directly associated with the problems he had described.” They’d done no work on their core priorities! Urgencies had crowded out priorities.
– Decisive by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Is there a way to make effective decisions throughout the day without using a systematic approach AND prevent the ‘default mode’ from taking us off track (causing urgencies to crowd out priorities)?
Yes, there is a way…and it’s something very fundamental to who we are. In fact, ‘who we are’ happens to be the answer to our decision dilemma.
The Identity Model
In the identity model of decision making, we essentially ask ourselves three questions when we have a decision to make: Who am l? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? Notice what’s missing: any calculation of costs and benefits. The identity model explains the way most people vote, which contradicts our notion of the “self-interested voter.” It helps to shed light on why an auto mechanic in Oklahoma would vote against a Democrat who’d give him health insurance, and why a Silicon Valley millionaire would vote against a Republican who’d cut her taxes. Generally, when we use the word identity, we’re talking about an immutable trait of some kind-such as a racial, or regional identity. But that’s a relatively narrow use of the term. We’re not just born with an identity; we adopt identities throughout our lives. We aspire to be good mothers or fathers, devout Catholics or Muslims, patriotic citizens, and so on.
– Switch by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
We all create stories about ourselves. We consciously or unconsciously repeat those stories to ourselves and form an identity. These identities reveal our values, and our values dictate our actions and decisions.
What controls our lives is the concept of identity. It doesn’t matter what’s true, it matters what you believe. You have a set of beliefs that control who you are.
– Anthony Robbins
It’s easy to align our choices to our identity because we have a vivid image for how someone with that identity should act. Our identity compels us to act in the accordance of who we are thanks to a phenomenon called ‘cognitive dissonance’.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person experiences psychological distress due to conflicting thoughts or beliefs.
When we form an identity we establish certain expectations regarding how we should act from moment to moment. Cognitive dissonance results from the inconsistency between our expectations and our actions. We will experience discomfort and tension until we either change our beliefs (our identity) or change our behavior.
When I became an avid runner I started to see myself as ‘a runner’. If I had to choose between going for a run after work or going home to watch TV, I’d make the decision to go running quite easily. If I didn’t choose to go running I would feel anxious because watch TV instead of running wasn’t consistent with who I was: ‘a runner’.
I am often impressed by vegan’s who can resist hundreds of delicious foods that don’t align with their diet. However, I’ve recently come to understand that it’s much easier for a vegan to stick with their diet than to eat something which isn’t consistent with who they are: ‘a vegan’. If a vegan were to eat meat it would violate the concept of who they are as a person and they would be plagued by the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. Their strong identity and the need to avoid cognitive dissonance allows them to filter through an array of tempting food choices with relative ease.
When we remind ourselves of ‘who we are’ we can sort through several ‘good’ options and avoid decision paralysis.
Two Identity Types
There are two type of identities:
- Our individual identity
- The identity of our community, peer group or organization
I am a ‘Mucker’
In the late 1800’s, Thomas Edison (inventor of the phonograph and the light bulb) built an industrial research and design lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. The researchers in his lab were called ‘muckers.’
As Chip and Dan Health explain in their book Made to Stick:
The term comes from two slang phrases of the time—’to muck in’ was to work together as mates, and ‘to muck around’ was to fool around.
In any entrepreneurial organization, there’s a natural tension between efficiency and experimentation.
The term ‘muckers’ is a strategy statement masquerading as a nickname. It makes it clear that, given the tough choice between efficiency and experimentation, you choose experimentation. Why? Because you’re a mucker. Muckers don’t obsess over Gantt charts. Muckers muck.
Adopting the identity of a ‘mucker’ is an effective decision-making strategy. The image of a ‘mucker’ is powerful and can thus guide behavior. If you’re a ‘mucker’ you have an obligation to uphold the ‘mucker’ tradition: avoid detailed planning and start mucking
We are ‘Nordies’
Nordstrom is a department store known for outstanding customer service. The management at Nordstroms wants all their employees to provide exceptional service at almost any cost. To ensure their employees maintain a highly level of customer service they tell stories across the company to solidify the companies identity.
In the book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras detail a series of Nordstrom customer service stories:
– The Nordie who ironed a new shirt for a customer who needed it for a meeting that afternoon;
– The Nordie who cheerfully gift wrapped products a customer bought at Macy’s;
– The Nordie who warmed customers’ cars in winter while they finished shopping;
When you’re a ‘Nordie’ you go out of your way to help customers, even at the expense of efficiency. If you hold this identity in mind you will quickly make the decision between saving money and going the extra mile to increase the customer service experience.
If a ‘Nordie’ sees an opportunity to make the customers experience more pleasant, like entertaining children while a mother shops, the ‘Nordie’ doesn’t have to think long before deciding what to do next: she helps out the customer, even if her actions seem unproductive.
Reminding ourselves of our identity is an excellent decision-making strategy. Our identity guides our behavior by eliminating all choices that don’t align with our current identity. Thinking of our identity compels us to do that which MOST aligns with our identity, even that thing is the harder thing to do.
Being reminded that we’re a ‘mucker’ or a ‘nordie’ effortlessly leads us through the identity decision-making model:
- Who am I? (Or, who are my peers?)
- What is the situation?
- What would a person like me do in this situation?
Script Your Identity
Start off by consciously forming identities in the two areas of your life:
- Personal life (at home, with friends and family, etc.)
- Work life (at my desk, in meetings, etc.)
Here’s a few rules for scripting your identity:
- Make it short and profound (like a proverb)
- Make sure you get excited thinking about it (make it playful and a little odd)
- Make sure it brings to mind concrete images (thinking of the identity bring several examples to mind)
My personal role: ‘Personal Energy Generator’
- When I’m sitting on the couch feeling lazy I stop and ask myself: “am I doing what I can to generate personal energy?”. This usually gets me exercising or reading a book, which energizes my mind.
- When tempted to eat fast food I always ask “will this lead to sustained personal energy throughout the day?”
My work/business statement: ‘Chief Productivity Engineer’ – helping people get more done & enjoy the process
- If I’m deciding what article to write next I simply have to ask myself: “what will most help people ‘get more done & enjoy the process’?”
- When tempted to check my Facebook feed I simply have to ask myself: “will this allow me to help people ‘get more done & enjoy the process’?”
- A venture capitalist could spice up his identity by thinking of himself as a ‘treasure hunter’
- A school teacher could turn-up her identity by thinking of herself as a ‘nurturer of the human spirit’
Make Your Identity Conscious
It’s important to be conscious of your identity throughout the day (remember the executives who didn’t address any of their problems?!). If we want decision-making to be easy we need to frequently remind ourselves of who we are in any given context.
Identity is a powerful tool to guide behavior. Being conscious of our identity allows us to navigate tough decisions with relative ease.
Start off by establishing two identities: one for your work life and one for your personal life.
- When you wake up, go through your list of things to do and ask: “How will I fulfill ___(my/our identity)___ today?”
- When you get interrupted or distracted, ask: “Does this align with ___(my/our identity)___?”
- Set an alarm to go off every hour. When the alarm rings ask: “Am I being true to ___(my/our identity)___?”