It turns out, though, that for most people there is no such thing as a purely rational self. Decision making is intrinsically linked to our emotions, so much so that when a person suffers damage to her orbitofrontal cortex—a part of the brain just behind the eyes that's strongly involved in processing emotions—she can lose her decision-making ability entirely. (We're talking any decision, like which day to schedule a doctor's appointment or whether to use a blue or black pen.) "If it weren't for our emotions," says science writer Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, "reason wouldn't exist at all."
One way our emotions help us decide is by creating a physical response to information we don't even realize we've noticed. When we slam on the brakes at the sight of an unexpected car, for example, it's because our subconscious mind has recognized danger and translated it into a flash of fear; we decide to act without any conscious thought.
But our emotions can also lead us astray, as when they encourage us to give a doomed relationship another try or to keep feeding quarters into a slot machine. Since every choice represents a battle between your rational conscious and emotional subconscious minds, the key to good decision making is learning how to pick which side should win.
The best decision makers let the situation guide them. The more experience you have with a particular type of decision, the safer it is to go with your intuition, since your subconscious has a wealth of reliable information from which to draw. A professional decorator would have a good instinctive sense of which colors work best for a room, for instance, but if you're a novice like me, it's good to think more analytically.
Which is exactly what my husband and I tried to do: After we attempted to gauge our emotional responses to various shades of beige, we began to systematically evaluate how they looked against the door frame. We got nowhere. According to Barry Schwartz, PhD, a psychologist and professor of social theory at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice, we were confronting another challenge common to the modern-day decision maker: too many choices.
Anyone who has stood paralyzed in the cereal aisle of the supermarket knows that even if some level of choice is crucial for happiness, too much can feel overwhelming. "We're constantly being told that we can find the best if we try hard enough, and that if we don't, it's our own fault," says Schwartz. "It's a recipe for misery." Too much choice not only makes a decision harder, he continues, but also makes it more likely that we'll regret our selection. To improve our odds of reaching decisions we feel good about, Schwartz suggests figuring out ways to reduce the options to a more manageable number.
In the end, my husband and I chose Soft Chamois—not because it stood out from all the others but because we ran out of time. The painter was scheduled to come the next day. The irony is that, after all our deliberation, it essentially looks white. A gentle, creamy white—but white nonetheless. There was a time when I would have regretted this and tortured myself wondering if Hot Spring Stones would have looked better. But these days I'm trying instead to live Schwartz's number-one rule of decision making: that good enough is often good enough.
Next: 7 steps to better decisions
7 Steps to Better Decisions
A handy guide to weighing your options.
1. Identify your goal.
As David Welch, PhD, professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and author of Decisions, Decisions: The Art of Effective Decision Making, explains, "People who aren't self-reflective are going to end up making bad decisions because they don't really know what they want in the first place." Before you switch jobs, ask yourself: Do I really want a different career? Or do I just want a different boss? Don't make a decision based on the wrong problem.
2. Eliminate choices by setting standards.
If you're trying to buy a digital camera, list the features you'll actually use. Any camera that has them is therefore good enough for you; ignore anything fancier. Speaking of which...
3. Don't worry about finding the "best."
How good you feel about your decisions is usually more important than how good they are objectively.
4. Be aware of biases.
They can lead smart people to make dumb decisions. For example: We hate to lose more than we like to win, which can result in behavior such as holding on to a tanking stock instead of accepting a loss. We remember vivid examples better than facts, which is why plane crashes stick in our heads more than statistics on air safety. And we're susceptible to how information is framed—a "cash discount" is more appealing than "no credit card surcharge." Keeping these biases in mind can help you think clearly.
5. Try not to rush.
People tend to make poorer choices when they're in a bad mood or under a lot of stress. When facing a complex decision, use your conscious brain to gather the information you need, and then take a break. Go for a walk. Spend a half hour meditating. Take a nap. Have a beer. The idea is to give your unconscious mind some time to do its work. The decision you make afterward is more likely to be the right (or at least a perfectly acceptable) one.
6. Don't sweat the small stuff.
When possible, eliminate the need for decisions by establishing rules for yourself. You will go to yoga every weekend. You will not have more than two glasses of wine. You will buy whatever toilet paper is on sale.
7. Do a postgame analysis.
After each decision you make, ask yourself how you felt afterward and what about the experience you can apply in the future.
Catherine Price is the author of 101 Places Not to See Before You Die (Harper Paperbacks).
Want to Make a Big Change?
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- What Oprah knows for sure about trusting her instincts
From the May 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.