Five Techniques for Avoiding Short-Sighted Decision-Making

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How to make decisions that are in your long-term interests without succumbing to short-term temptation.

We all have two people inside us. One is a party animal. He wants to get as much pleasure as he can right now. He wants to eat, drink, have sex and generally be merry.

The other is the boring guy. The kind who saves for a rainy day, eats healthily, never drinks too much, does the ‘right thing’ and probably irons his underpants as well.

We’ll call the first guy ‘Want’ and the second guy ‘Should’. The mental battle between Want and Should has been going on since most of us can remember. Maybe your Should guy usually wins the battle, or maybe your Want guy still runs amok every now and then.

These five techniques give you more ammunition in the battle between Want and Should, all based on solid psychological research (from Milkman et al., 2008):

1. Make the choice in advance

One of the best ways to fox the Want guy is to make the decision in advance. When we make decisions in advance it’s Should that’s in charge. Whatever area of life, whether it’s financial, dietary, work or any other, if you make the decision in advance, you’re likely to cut down on detrimental outcomes.

2. Compare similar options

Studies find that when people choose things without comparing the options their Want guy easily gets out of control. Without comparisons it’s easier for the Want guy to justify the bad decision. By comparing options, though, research finds that people are better able to make the choice that is in their long-term interests.

3. Avoid decisions under pressure

Spur-of-the-moment decisions are what the Want guy loves. When we make decisions under pressure, our basic desires are in charge. Try to avoid making decisions under pressure so that you can consider what you should do. When we give ourselves time to think, we’re much more likely to reach the right decision.

4. Make one-shot decisions

All sorts of weird things start happening when we imagine the choice we are making right now as one in a series. Often not good things. You see the Want guy is clever. He knows we love to lie to ourselves to get what we want. We tell ourselves things like: “I’ll have that cake now, then I’ll eat healthily for the rest of the week”.

No. No ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and no tortuous logic to get what we want. Shut the Want guy down by making one-shot decisions. Am I going to be good or bad, right here, right now?

5. Use commitment devices

We can stop ourselves acting on impulse by committing ourselves to a course of action that is in our long-term interests. Commitment devices allow us to take the choice away from the Want guy.

Here are some methods people use to pre-commit to long-term interests:

  • Only buy ‘bad’ foods in small packet.
  • Sign up to the gym for a whole year.
  • Put money into a piggy bank that has to be smashed to get the money out. Grown-up equivalents include investment vehicles that lock money away.

Commitment devices are best when they are tailored to your own psychological preferences and circumstances. For example, if you’re well-off then a year’s gym membership might not be enough commitment to make you exercise. Or, if you don’t care about eating six small packets of a ‘bad’ food, one after the other, then this technique won’t work either.

You’ll have to discover what type of commitment device works for you. Whatever it is, make sure it’s solid or the Want guy will come and get you!

Image credit: Willem van de Kerkhof

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 6 June 2011

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License