By Cheryl Strauss Einhorn
March 15, 2023
What is the psychology of your decision-making? It’s an important question because every day, all day, you make decisions. And the decisions you make are the only thing you can truly control. How you decide matters.
Yet somehow, we never learn about our decision-making. We don’t learn it in schools or at home. But with my new book Problem Solver, Maximizing Your Strengths To Make Better Decisions, you can learn not only about your own decision-making, but also about the decision-making of others. After all decision making is rarely a solo activity so learning about others can help make better decisions together.
To get started, begin with yourself. What are your decision-making strengths and your blind spots: What is your typical approach? Looking inward to what you value can illuminate why you make decisions the way you do – and how your approach might be short-changing yourself. From there, you can disrupt your thinking by bringing in other people who approach decisions differently than you do.
The Problem Solver Profiles
Through my research and work in decision-making, I have identified five different decision-making archetypes, which I call Problem Solver Profiles (PSPs). In my book, Problem Solver, Maximizing Your Strengths to Make Better Decisions, I describe how these PSPs are personal decision-making approaches that are built from our individual strengths and weaknesses, specific cognitive biases that reveal habits and patterns of behavior that drive our choices. They aren’t proscriptive; once we gain awareness of what we tend to do, we can take steps to become more dynamic, flexible decision-makers.
Below are brief descriptions of the five Problem Solver Profiles. Read through them to see if you recognize your own habits in one of these profiles.
- Adventurer: You make decisions quickly and trust your gut. When faced with a challenge, big or small, you’d rather do what feels right than spend your valuable time thinking through all the choices. You know who you are and what you want—so you aren’t afraid to go get it.
- Detective: You value information and are always looking for facts and data. You don’t decide based on how you feel—you want to see what the evidence says. You believe that the more you learn and soak in the details, the better you’ll do.
- Listener: You’ve got a whole village of people in your life whom you trust and who support you. When you are faced with a challenging situation or a complex decision, you rely on these people, asking for their input and opinions. You feel comfortable knowing you don’t have to decide by yourself.
- Thinker: You are thoughtful, resisting the pressure to make quick decisions. You carefully weigh options, wanting to understand the positives and negatives of each. You don’t need a lot of data, but you do need the time and headspace to feel like you have both a reason for the choice you’re making and a rationale for why it makes sense. Speed is not your goal; process is.
- Visionary: You don’t want to settle for the ordinary, and you like to go your own way. When faced with a clear set of options, you’re more interested in finding a different one, preferably one that hasn’t yet occurred to others. You keep everyone guessing—and often, you surprise those around you with your decisions.
Which of these profiles do you identify with? Most of us can be more than one type of problem solver, although we almost always have one dominant approach that we lean on. Once you’ve identified the style or styles that best represents your approach, you can then learn how to better work within and outside of it.
Cognitive Biases and PSPs
There’s no question that each of these archetypes comes with great strengths—but strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. Each PSP is also associated with a set of cognitive biases that can impede effective decision-making. Fortunately, you can avoid these pitfalls bringing in the right kinds of people to break your ingrained habits.
Your Optimism Bias makes you feel unstoppable, which can lead you into danger. Because you like to move quickly and are optimistic about most everything, you don’t always have an accurate sense of how long something really takes. This can lead to a Planning Bias, where you run the risk of falling behind schedule and not actually accomplishing everything you want to.
To avoid this, pay attention to the other stakeholders involved in your decision. Are you running roughshod over them? Do you understand their goals and objectives—and are you taking those into account? Make sure to listen to them without judgment and note any concerns that something can’t be done on time. To truly solve a problem that involves others, we need to include those people who have the highest stake in the result.
Your Frame Blindness can mean that you miss the bigger picture, leading to situations where you solve for the wrong problem (or only part of one). More information does not always make for a better decision; it may just put you further in the weeds. Detectives can also fall prey to Confirmation Bias, cherry-picking through reams of data to support a favored hypothesis. More information is not always unbiased information, especially if you’re only collecting it to prove that you’re right, and published research (which Detectives favor) is not the only type of information out there.
Instead, recognize that other voices are valuable. All information doesn’t come as data – some comes from people. Go beyond the data to speak to knowledgeable sources. Lean on coworkers to help you see the forest and the trees. Use their knowledge and expertise to put the data you have into perspective. At times you may also need to look outside your team or department —or even outside your company—when appropriate, for other experts who can bring a fresh perspective on the topic at hand.
Unlike some of the other PSPs, being a Listener means that you may rely too heavily on other people to make decisions for you, whether they are family, friends, or coworkers. You can fall victim to Authority Bias, being swayed by the opinions of people in positions of power. You’re loyal to those you trust, sometimes making decisions based on what—or who—you like, which is called Liking Bias. While others may be well-intended in their advice, they may not be aligned with your inner voice, especially if you have not listened to it yourself.
Recognize that your inner voice is valuable: Before getting input from others, sit with yourself and identify what is important to you in the outcome of your decision. Only after you do this should you reach out to others for their thoughts and perspectives. And remember, just because Listeners include others naturally, does not mean that those people have divergent viewpoints. When discussing a problem with others, listen not only for opinions, but for differences of opinion. If your go-to group doesn’t provide that perspective, look for others who could play devil’s advocate.
Because you are so cautious, you may fall prey to Loss Aversion, avoiding failure by picking a safe option rather than the best one. And because you like to compare and weigh options, Relativity Bias may keep you from seeing things as they actually are. Instead, you may be inclined to compare the situation to something else, which may frame a problem too narrowly.
Recognize when you are stuck in your own head. Your time is valuable. Set a decision-making deadline before you begin a decision-making process to limit how long–and how often–you can ruminate and reach out to a trusted friend or colleague so they can hold you accountable. Whether working alone or with a team, Thinkers benefit from creating a vision of success first to identify success metrics and invert the problem. By working backward and focusing on the solution, you will have an easier time staying on track and working with others.
With your propensity for being drawn to exciting ideas, you may experience Saliency Bias, getting attached to the most prominent solution or boldest idea, even if it isn’t ultimately the best option. You also overvalue originality because it’s rare, a form of Scarcity Bias that devalues what is common or plentiful, which can lead you to invest in being different rather than making the smartest choice.
Recognize the value of the ordinary: By communicating your (precious) vision to others clearly and then collecting data to test it out, you’ll have a better sense of which inspirational ideas to pursue and which ones to shelve – for now. Actively solicit feedback from those around you, asking others not only what they’ve heard, but also what they’ve understood. Is the idea feasible? Are there gaps that need to be closed for everyone to be aligned? Do team members know where their responsibility lies? Their answers will help you to hone your thinking.
There is no “perfect” Problem Solver Profile. While some decisions –or even stages of a decision– might be better made by certain PSPs, a truly successful decision benefits from a variety of perspectives that combine different thinking processes. By breaking away from your standard approach and involving someone with a different PSP, you can bring out a more holistic understanding of a situation, better ensuring that you are solving the whole problem.
As you build your decision-making skills, consider borrowing the approaches of other PSPs, as well. Using them can feel unnatural and even uncomfortable, but you’ll be building a robust set of tools to make better decisions in the long run.
More dynamic decision-making begins with knowing more about yourself and all of the Problem Solver Profiles so you can appreciate how different decision approaches can expand your understanding of the decisions you face. Those who think differently can help you sidestep blind spots and biases to gain new perspectives about a problem. While it’s not always easy to think outside your own box, remember that you’re building the muscles you need to strengthen your decision skills and make your big decisions better.
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn
Cheryl Strauss Einhorn founded Decisive, a decision sciences company that trains people and teams in complex problem solving and decision-making skills using the AREA Method. AREA is an evidence-based decision-making system that uniquely controls for and counters cognitive bias to expand knowledge while improving judgment. Cheryl developed AREA during her two decades as an award-winning investigative journalist writing for publications ranging from The New York Times and Foreign Policy Magazine to Barron’s and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. Cheryl teaches at Cornell University, previously at Columbia Business School, and has authored three books Problem Solved, A Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence and Conviction, about personal and professional decision-making, and Investing In Financial Research, A Decision-Making System for Better Results about financial and investment decisions. Her new book about Problem Solver Profiles, Problem Solver, Maximizing Your Strengths To Make Better Decisions, was released in March 2023. Learn more by watching her Ted talk and visiting areamethod.com.
Check out IIL’s Business Relationship Management Professional Course here!
Explore IIL’s Risk Management Professional Course here!
Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.