Christmas is a time of many vital decisions: understated chic knit or gaudy Christmas jumper? Five mince pies or a single helping of Christmas pudding? And after the office night out, wait for the night bus or jump in a taxi? Our decision-making methods change depending on our circumstances so Stylist has partnered with Transport for London in this special section to explore the psychology behind our choosing mechanisms, and how we can make them work for us.
The Art of Decision Making
Think of the last big decision that really sticks in your mind. Chances are it was taking the plunge on a new job, moving to a new city or ending an old relationship. Because, whether it was happy, sad, easy or tricky, it’s those big, dramatic forks in the road that we tend to remember.
What few of us realise is that while those huge decisions stick with us, thousands pass us by. Around 35,000 in fact – the number of decisions you’ll make today alone, says Sekoul Krastev, strategy director of behavioural science think tank, The Decision Lab. From eyes open to lights out, we’re all in a constant decisionmaking mode. And those decisions run the gamut from the tiny – shoe choice, Tube seat selection – to the momentous, such as finally ditching the dull career after 10 years and going back to university.
The reason you’re not utterly exhausted by it is that not every decision takes effort. “Most you don’t even notice,” explains Krastev, “such as which mug to use or news website to consult. They’re automatic and so don’t use up much energy. Only some decisions require real consideration and analysis. Those are the ones you really need to deliberate on.”
Welcome to what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2 thinking. Put simply, your System 1 is what we think of as gut instinct or intuition. You reach for porridge over eggs without blinking or just ‘feel like’ taking a different route to the office. System 2 is slower, more analytical and, at least mentally, much more work; whether or not to have children or choosing who to hire for a crucial role at work.
Look around at friends and family and this distinction won’t come as a surprise. We all know people who ‘go with their gut’, while others couldn’t decide on a holiday destination without a five-page spreadsheet. These labels become an easy shorthand to define ourselves and others. Some take pride in carefully covering every angle, others celebrate the fact that they just jump in.
Best of both worlds
So, is the world divided into those who decide in a second and those who always take their time? Not quite, says Nick Tasler, organisational psychologist and author of The Impulse Factor. “First of all, everybody uses both styles of decision making. Even the most analytical person you know uses their intuition daily. It’s simply impossible to make it through a single day as a human being without it.”
However, he believes some people tend to rely more on one than the other. Genes play a key part. “Research shows some genetic components will make one person more disposed to caution and analysis versus intuition and exploration.” For instance, take DRD4, the dopamine-receptor dubbed the ‘novelty-seeking gene’. Around one in four of us have it and those who do are more likely to take risks and make impulsive decisions. Hello, January sale credit card meltdown.
Personality also has a big role to play, says Belinda Vigors, an academic who studies decision making under risk at the University of Greenwich. “People high in conscientiousness tend to be better at controlling impulses, so surethey naturally take more analytical decisions. Low in conscientiousness and you tend to be more impulsive, and say, ‘Oh, I’ll just do it.’”
It’s just emotion
But are there times when one type of decision making overtakes the other? Absolutely, says Tasler. “When we have limited time, being analytical might not be an option. There’s also what I call ‘conditional impulsivity’, when analytical people become risky and impulsive.” Which is thanks to good old FOMO. “Most people are risk averse. But when we think everyone else is getting ahead without us, when the ‘pack’ is moving from an evolutionary perspective, the most dangerous thing we can do is stay behind, alone and exposed.”
So we panic. Should we buy shares in a start-up like everyone else? Who cares if we don’t understand the product or the financial risk? Even if our gut says something doesn’t feel right we go along with it; but it’s not always for the best. “Even though we might be analytical by nature, the conditions have made us appear very impulsive,” Tasler explains.
Dodgy investments aside, even the best decision makers go off course when life throws an emotional spanner in the works. Ask Sabah Khan, 30, who works in PR. “Usually, I’m the one people come to for advice. But last year, I was in a rut, unhappy, and knew I had to make a change. I felt quite isolated, so I just made a decision that felt easy and quick – to change jobs. I found a new job and began working for a different company.”
She’s not alone. Whether you’re a head or heart person, tiredness and stress have a real impact on your ability to make good choices. Research also found decisions are best made in the morning when serotonin levels are high. Who hasn’t jumped in the first cab they see at night when they just want to get home?
As for Khan, she now sees it was her emotions driving that decision. “After eight months in my new job, after feeling sad and down, I left and am now in a job I love. Looking back, I see I was feeling so helpless I made a poor decision as I didn’t know what else to do.”
So should we try to remove emotion from decision making altogether, to think like a computer? Absolutely not, says Vigors. Firstly it’s impossible; studies on people who’ve had parts of their frontal lobe removed found they couldn’t make decisions because they couldn’t access their emotions. Think of them as the ‘in’ process before the ‘out’ process, she says; they shape how we feel about situations and help us choose what we really want to do.
Get to know your emotions and you’ll learn more about why you make the decisions you do. What makes you happy or anxious, what were the outcomes when those emotions arose in the past? You can’t control your emotions, but we can work with them.
Still worried? Don’t be. Evolution is on our side, Vigors says. “Everyone thinks it’s about the survival of the fittest, but it’s actually about the survival of the good enough. As humans, we have adapted to make decisions that use the least amount of energy to get the good-enough outcome.”
So whatever your decision-making style don’t beat yourself up about imperfect choices. After all, one miss still means 34,999 chances to get it right.
We ask four Stylist readers about the decisions that came to define their lives
“I woke up one day and decided to sell my business”
Lucy Arnold, 27 from Sheffield “I’ve always made decisions with my gut. At 19, I decided to move to Paris to be an au pair and was gone seven days later. At 25, I woke up one morning and said, ‘Today I’m going to sell my pottery painting business.’ I’d owned it for four years and had been unhappy for a while, I was barely seeing my partner and my skin was terrible from the stress. But I was afraid that selling up would mean I’d failed. For some reason that day I just knew it was the right thing to do. I called my accountant, solicitor and landlord right away to tell them and the relief was incredible. I was no longer frightened, I was back in control. Only then did I tell my partner (who’s a data analyst so a very different decision maker) and my mum, who was also my employee. I’m glad I didn’t slow down to think, it would have stopped me making the right decision. I’m actually an anxious person, and I know that overthinking can cause me distress. So I just ask, what would make me happier? And then I go with that.
“I had no idea what to do next. But I felt so great from my gut decision that I trusted myself twice again. First to train as a personal trainer and set up my own studio and then, earlier this year, to launch my own range of leggings. It’s been such a success. My decision making may be fast but it hasn’t steered me wrong.”
“It took 28 months of struggle but I finally quit the law”
Leah Steele, 33 from Bristol “I’m all for using my gut but I’m definitely an over-thinker. In 2014 I was a solicitor specialising in probate law. I was commuting three hours a day and working myself into the ground. Then, in the December, my mum died very suddenly. It should have been my wake-up call but instead it took me years of struggle to actually make the decision to quit law. In truth, I was so tired and emotional that I couldn’t make a quick decision, I needed to take it slow.
“Life coaching gave me a step-by-step process to figure out what to do next. Each move, like changing to a law job closer to home, was thought out. I made pros and cons lists that were pages long. But having a coach say, ‘This isn’t easy, you need to give yourself time to do this – take small steps’, was empowering. I wasn’t a superwoman making a huge leap. I was just a normal person trying to make a change. And that long, analytical process got me where I needed to be. In April 2017 I left the law to run my own coaching business and it was such a great decision. Now I can use my gut instinct again, I can be impulsive when I need to, knowing I can trust the decisions I make.”
“I booked a one-way ticket to Sydney”
Naomi Proudman, 26 from Birmingham “I used to be someone who couldn’t ever make a decision. I’d face a crossroads and feel paralysed, never knowing what to do for the best. As a people pleaser I also wanted to do the ‘right’ thing, which is how I found myself studying law. That first job as a graduate was awful, I knew right away it was a mistake and within six weeks was signed off with depression and anxiety. I felt terrible. Then I walked past a travel agent and saw a poster for working holiday visas in Australia. The second that brochure was in my hand I realised, this is what it feels like to make a really good decision.
“Five months later, I’d saved enough for a one-way ticket to Sydney. It didn’t work out as hoped – the visa rules changed and I had to return home. But it was without doubt the best seven months of my life. That leap of faith has given me such confidence in my ability to make decisions. I trust myself more. I also have the self-awareness to know not every decision has to be perfect. I am temping, which is good enough for now. If something isn’t right I know how to make a decision to fix it.”
“I left London for love”
Tiffany Dawkins, 33 from Wolverhampton “I always knew that Thomas, my partner, didn’t want to stay in London forever. But I was such a city girl, with a job I loved at Harvey Nichols and work travel to Milan and Paris. I just thought, we can go and live by the sea when we’re 50. Then we visited my mum in Wolverhampton. She asked if we’d consider moving there and started talking about the great houses and jobs. It would be such a different life, one I knew Thomas wanted.
I wasn’t so sure and because I owned our flat in London, it was a huge decision for me to make. But I thought, he’s serious about this, so filled with nerves we arranged for an estate agent to come around and I went from saying, ‘Let’s see what happens’ to saying, ‘Let’s do this’. I knew I just had to jump so I didn’t let analysis take over as I can talk myself out of anything. One day on the market and two offers later the flat was sold. Our lives are so different now. He works as a cobbler and I’m a foster carer, both things we’re passionate about. He’s home at 5:30 and we can have dinner together and take walks, we get to enjoy each other. It was a great decision that really paid off.”
Run through three simple tests and know for sure…
Gut decisions can be great; they’re quick, empowering and satisfying. But they don’t always get us where we need to go. That’s thanks to the way our brains have evolved, says Jo Whitehead, director of Ashridge Strategic Management Centre and co-author of Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions And How To Keep It From Happening To You.
“We need our gut instinct, we literally couldn’t get by without it. But what many don’t realise is that even pure instinct draws on our biases and past experiences,” he explains. That blissful summer or awful boss, it’s all filed away, drawn on in a split second.
“Gut feeling comes from the ancient mammalian part of your brain. It is about bringing experiences, memories and feelings together from the past to guide future decisions,” he says. “But if they are inappropriate experiences, memories or feelings, those biases might drive you the wrong way.”
So what can we do? You can’t eliminate bias, but you can challenge it. Whitehead has devised three simple tests to do just that.
Sit down with a friend and answer each of the questions on the right (replying to another person is more likely to elicit helpful responses). After each, ask, ‘Do I feel as strongly in my gut as I did before?’ If you do, great. If not, maybe think again.
The tests use the example of the gut decision to choose between potential jobs. But they can be applied to anything.
Your subconscious will search your memory for similar situations. See if your past experiences provide useful foundations from which to draw.
ASK YOURSELF THESE QUESTIONS
What are the most important factors to weigh up for the job move? Pay, commute, work colleagues, working hours?
What differences are there between the jobs? Is the pay similar, but the commute for one is longer?
Do you have experience of these big differences? For example, have you ever commuted an hour using the same type of transport? Are you as prepared as you were then?
All memories come with emotional ‘tags’ but if it’s a passionate emotion, it could lead us to be melodramatic. Not helpful when decision making.
ASK YOURSELF THESE QUESTIONS
Are there any particular emotions that you associate with similar situations in the past. For example, if you did this commute before, was it associated with moving in with an exciting new partner?
Might these emotions sway your feelings about your current decision?
If you’d just moved away from home, for instance, were you free of the commitments you have now and particularly happy about it, or feeling really homesick?
It’s OK to make decisions that benefit us, but helping ourselves at the expense of others can mean poor decisions. Here’s how to avoid it.
ASK YOURSELF THESE QUESTIONS
Will the decision affect everyday life? Commuting longer, say, might mean paying for a cleaner or cooking less and buying more takeaways.
Are there short-term benefits but long-term costs? If it means quitting a part-time MBA, will it hurt your career?
Now repeat the questions, but instead of putting yourself first, consider the benefits and costs to the others you share your life with. Do you still feel as strongly?
If your gut is still strong then go for it. Failed one or more test? That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go back to the drawing board but you should investigate the potential outcomes of your decision in more depth. Here’s how you can strengthen your decision-making process:
Ask someone who’s actually done that commute and see if your assumptions are reasonable.
Find a tougher friend to test you further on your assumptions.
Are you almost there but still wavering? Maybe try out that new commute a few times without before committing to the new job.
Make your journey a good one
Follow TfL’s tips for travelling this Christmas
The nights have drawn in, the temperature is plummeting and every street is festooned with lights. Yes, Christmas is coming and with it many parties. How to get home afterwards, though? There’s the Night Bus, which operates across London. Or at the weekend you can hop on the Night Tube or London Overground night service (launches 15 December) making the most of off-peak fares, but that’s not an option on a Thursday night.
And then there are cabs. We all know that feeling: it’s late, you have work the next day and those waiting cars look so tempting. And what’s not to love about snoozing on the back seat as you cruise home? Nothing, provided the taxi you hailed, or minicab you ordered, is licensed.
What makes a licensed taxi or minicab so important? Well, it’s legitimate and properly regulated – all TfL-licensed drivers will have been through enhanced criminal record checks. Plus, there’s a record of every booked minicab journey detailing the driver and the vehicle they use. Checking your booking and making sure you’re in the right car also adds an extra layer of security to your journey.
Here are three ways to ensure you get the service you were expecting…
Hail a taxi
London’s 21,000 black taxis can be hailed from the street or taken from one of more than 600 ranks across the capital without advance booking. And forget how it was in the past with the inevitable scrape of your bag’s innards at the end of your journey – you can now pay by card. Every black taxi has a card machine installed, so if you don’t have cash, you can pay using credit, debit or contactless instead.
Book a minicab
Unlike black taxis, it’s neither safe nor legal to hail a minicab in the street, so always make sure that you book ahead or in the minicab office. And take the uncertainty out of the situation and book it yourself. Just because a minicab has a TfL sticker in the window doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. The same goes if a doorman hails a car for you. Book a minicab directly through a licensed minicab company and check your confirmation to be reassured that you’re in the right car. You’ll get a booking confirmation via text, email or, if you’re booking in person, a good, old-fashioned paper receipt. This will include both the driver’s name and car registration so you can check before you ride – if a driver or car other than the one you were expecting turns up, don’t get in.
Use an app
Time to put those smartphones to use, people. There are now plenty of apps available to help you summon a TfL-licensed taxi or minicab on demand. Even if you’re nowhere near a main street or a taxi rank, it’s not a problem. A few taps on your screen via the various apps available, and you can quickly and safely order yourself a black taxi or a minicab from a licensed company.
Whatever you choose, you can be confident you’re getting the right vehicle home…
CHOOSE WISELY THIS CHRISTMAS
There are four simple ways to get home using a taxi or minicab.
Visit TfL’s website to find out more