You’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018

Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson), author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, explains the importance of generating alternatives to any course of action you are considering:

In the early 1980s, a business school professor named Paul Nutt set out to catalog real-world decisions the way a botanist might catalog the various types of vegetation growing in a rain forest. In his initial study, published in 1984, he analyzed 78 decisions made by senior managers at a range of public and private organizations in the United States and Canada: insurance companies, government agencies, hospitals, consulting firms.

The most striking finding in Professor Nutt’s research was this: Only 15 percent of the decisions he studied involved a stage where the decision makers actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table. In a later study, he found that only 29 percent of organizational decision makers contemplated more than one alternative.

This turns out to be a bad strategy. Over the years, Professor Nutt and other researchers have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself. In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50 percent of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time.

The upshot is clear: If you find yourself mapping a “whether or not” question, looking at a simple fork in the road, you’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available paths.

He continues with a rather fashionable follow-on notion:

What’s the best way to expand your pool of options? Researchers suggest that if possible, you diversify the group of people who are helping make the decision. About a decade ago, the social psychologist Samuel Sommers conducted a series of mock trials in which a jury debated and evaluated evidence from a sexual assault case. Some of the juries were entirely white, while other juries were more diverse in their racial makeup. By almost every important metric, the racially mixed juries performed better at their task. They considered more potential interpretations of the evidence, remembered information about the case more accurately and engaged in the deliberation process with more rigor and persistence.

Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.

A 2008 study led by the management professor Katherine Phillips using a similar investigative structure revealed an additional, seemingly counterintuitive finding: While the more diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, they were also far less confident in the decisions they made. They were both more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the idea that they might be wrong.


  1. Phil O. Eleutheria says:

    Problem is, many humans are absent or losing the ability for reasoning, employing logic, or discerning the best possible option(s) among numerous possibilities.

    The “fake news” culture is proof. People get confused with too much information, too many choices. They cannot comprehend different possible scenarios, and haven’t learned to differentiate possible fact from possible fiction. They haven’t the skills for evidence exploration.

    The “Backfire Effect” is evidence. “Confirmation Bias” is evidence.

    Most people can only rely on their biases or prejudices, often instilled by presumed authority, or limited experience and knowledge (or ignorance).

    Darwin, in his Descent of Man wrote that “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Bertrand Russell wrote “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”.

    The more one thinks they know, often the less they know. And often the less they can comprehend, beyond their highly limited knowledge and cognitive skills.

    More and more, people are expected to do solely as they’re told to do.

    Authoritarianism breeds authoritarianism. The more people are told what to do, and how to do it, the less their cognitive skills develop.
    The less their cognitive skills develop, the less they can make proper judgement.

    “Dichotomous Thought” is one of the oldest traits of humans. That is black & white, either/or thinking. It is akin to “tribalism”. You see it in sports, you see it in politics, you see it in the daily thoughts of most people.

    It is the primary driver of “in-group” vs “out-group” behavior & psychology.

    Most people can merely sort things into mere polar opposites. They can’t imagine the range of often limitless possibilities between those two polar opposites.

  2. Graham says:

    Well, tribalism is pretty common at all points on the ethnic, class, or intellectual spectrums, so either it is an inescapable brake on reason or it isn’t the same question. Quite.

    I see it more as a natural trait [affiliation and identity] that manifests itself in allegiance to anything- place, kin, culture/way of life/, class, voluntary group [military, profession, friends], set of moral preferences, and so on. They vary in complicated ways compared to ethnicity, class origin, or time period. Some were long considered baseline, others were options for escape. Now most compete on the same level for our allegiance.

    But I find it hard to actually distinguish among them on the basis of reason- reason is a tool, not an end. And the ends are all either instinctive, imposed, or preferential.

    As for the rest of Johnson’s point as offered here, I certainly applaud his commitment to race and gender essentialism.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    People have been tribalist, conformist and illogical as far back as I can remember. From all I’ve read, they always have been.

    All it takes to arrive at an optimal solution is one guy who is smart enough to come up with the answer. The trick is finding that one guy. Here is where a heterogenous group comes in handy. But once you’ve found that one guy you can send the rest home.

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