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Why are personal decisions so difficult to make?

I have been teaching and training people to make the right decision every time for a good twelve years now. I have had people struggle with questions like, “Should I leave my job and start my own business?”, “Should I sell my house?”, “Should I quit my job and take care of my mom?” and even, “Should I marry this man?” (I kid you not!). Now, even when I help them make the decision, many of them are skeptical of the decision they arrived at, while others use very illogical decision inputs to make their decision. Invariably, all of them are prone to making the wrong decision. So, in this article, we will examine what causes us to make decision mistakes, especially for personal decisions. Spoiler alert: This is a LONG article because there are MANY biases! Make sure you are ready…


First off, let us address the elephant in the room – can we REALLY make the right decision EVERY TIME, and how do we do that? Before we answer how, we must first decipher what is the right decision. Indeed, many people are susceptible to what is called the outcome bias. This is a bias that makes people judge the rightness of a decision based on its outcome. I know, you are thinking, “What is wrong with that?” A good decision maker must be making the decision to get the right outcome, right? Well, it is not as simple as that.

Let me give you an example.

You have an ailing pet. You brought him to the vet, and he says that your pet has a serious illness, and if left untreated, he will probably have about 6 months to live. He also tells you that there is a new drug that can be used. There is a 70% chance of success with the drug, which would give your pet another 2-3 years of life. Of course, the downside is that the pet’s demise may be hastened. You are a logical person, and you calculate that the expected value of life expectancy with the drug is 1.75 years as opposed to just 0.5 years if left untreated. So, you decide to take the treatment. Unfortunately, your pet did not respond well to the treatment and died 2 weeks later! You berate yourself for making the wrong decision because if you did not do anything, your pet would at least still be alive!

Question: was it the wrong decision to have opted for the treatment? You know that it is not, because the expected value of the life expectancy was 1.75 versus 0.5. So how can it be wrong? It so happens that you (and many people as well) are outcome biased, where you take the outcome of a decision as a means to determine if the decision was right or not. In this case, you call this decision wrong because your pet responded poorly to the treatment.

Yet, logically speaking, at the point of making the decision, the decision was right! An expected life expectancy of 1.75 years versus 0.5 years is too great a disparity not to take. Of course, there are no certainties in life, so the right decision might still lead to the wrong outcome, and a wrong decision might lead to the right outcome. That is the twist of fate or luck. But you cannot replicate luck. You cannot consistently make the wrong decision and get the right outcome.

So, if outcome is not the means to decide if a decision is right or wrong, what is? As in all systems, there is an input, a process and an output (or the outcome). Since the output cannot be used as a judge for the right or wrong decision, then it would be up to the inputs and the process. Indeed, the quality of inputs and the quality of decision process are key determinants for the right decision. And, if all the same decision inputs were to present themselves again, you would make exactly the same decision once more! (choosing 1.75 years life expectancy over 0.5 years!) Such is the scientific method for decision making.

Yet, we have seen time and again, humans are very terrible at making decisions! It is not because we are ignorant or unintelligent, it is because we are… well… human! And humans are filled with biases! At the last count, there are more than 100 different biases that affect human decision making! No wonder we are prone to making the wrong decisions! And personal decisions are more susceptible to such biases, as compared to professional ones, because of all the emotions and personal issues. This is not to say that professional decisions are not difficult and are not prone to biases; but the incidence is less compared to personal decisions.


Let us now look at some of the more common biases that affect us, their effects on our decision-making and how to overcome (or minimize) them…

a. Affect heuristic – where your immediate emotions weigh much more strongly than the facts. For example, when you see a man in tattoos sitting in your interview room, you immediately think this person is a bad character even before you have interviewed him! That is called the affect heuristic. So, when a person is strug