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Description: What are you going to have for lunch today? How about after dinner, are you doing to watch a movie or TV? What will you watch? Are you going to get married? What career are you going to pursue? Some decisions are easy and some are, well, NOT.  How do you make BIG decisions? Do you make a list of pro’s and cons? Then what? Does the list help? How do your decisions work out? Well, lists of pro’s and cons, by themselves, are actually not very helpful. How do we know this? Research! Psychological research in areas like cognitive science and decision making and I/O Psychology and Developmental Life Design actually has been looking closely at how people make big decisions and, thankfully, has some things to tell us about how we can do better and make decisions that are less likely to lead to failed outcomes and dashed hopes and dreams. Ok maybe the dashed hopes and dreams part is overly dramatic but there IS stuff there we can (and should!) use. So, with your own big decision-making processes in mind, have a read through the article linked below and pay particular attention to what the Psychological science (well and some from a few other also-ran fields as well) has to offer.

Source: How to Make a Big Decision: Have no fear. An emerging science can help you choose. Steven Johnson, Grey Matter, The New York Times.

Date: September 2, 2018


Article Link:


First, meet Emma Darwin, she was Charles Darwin’s first cousin and he married her, and they had 10 children (three of whom died very young). So, Darwin used his rudimentary Pro/Con list and decided to get married and have children.  A recurrent finding in the research literatures on decision-making is that a “should I do it yes or no” approach is doomed to failure (in terms of longer term outcomes) at least 50% of the time. In contrast developing at least 2 alternative courses of action only lead to failure 1/3 of the time. Generating alternatives is a core feature of various life design approaches which feature making distinct alternative possible plans when designing your life course. Having diverse advisors or peers off whom you can bounce ideas helps too. I particularly like Gary Klein’s suggested “pre-mortem” study. When you are considering a course of action put yourself into the future, imagine that your choice failed badly and try to figure out why. Thinking about what we do not know can be very informative in making better decisions. Finally, reflecting on what you value is also (or should be) an important part of Developmental Life Design in emerging adulthood. Your values are the “weights” that will sort out which of your pro’s and con’s are the most important and which are trivial and rolled up together will help you make better, more livable and more personally successful decisions. Give it a try! Search this site for more posts on Life Design for more suggestions.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What do Pro-Con decision-making lists only produce successful decisions around 50% of the time?
  2. What is a “pre-mortem” and why might it be a good thing to try out?
  3. Why might it be helpful to review your personal values as part of important personal decision-making?

References (Read Further):

Klein, G. (2007). Performing a project premortem. Harvard Business Review, 85(9), 18-19.

Serrat, O. (2017). The Premortem Technique. In Knowledge Solutions (pp. 223-228). Springer, Singapore.

Nutt, P. (2002). Why decisions fail: Avoiding the blunders and traps that lead to debacles. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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