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How Can We Make Rational Decisions In Uncertain Times?

In today’s world, the level of uncertainty seems higher than ever. With the ongoing global pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, an unstable economy and a pivotal upcoming election, it can be hard to focus on the mundane tasks of our everyday lives. Despite the world feeling upside down, we’re still expected to continue working, cultivating healthy lifestyles and engaging with family and friends. A question coming up more and more frequently, both personally and professionally, is “is it possible to make rational decisions when dealing with this level of uncertainty?”. Many of us, mimicking fight mode, end up acting on impulse out of emotion and bias instead of factual information. Others, mimicking freeze mode, become overwhelmed and paralyzed causing them to simply do nothing. All of these responses, while unproductive, are extremely normal. Being aware of the impact uncertainty can have is vital to beginning to manage it. “Effective awareness means pausing, taking a strategic stop, and assessing the situation and the unknowns.” Even if there is limited information available to guide us, there are tools inherently within us to help us make decisions systematically and analytically. Luckily, there’s a simple four-step process we can utilize to begin working with and through uncertainty to allow rational decision making. 

How Can We Make Rational Decisions When Faced with Such Uncertainty?

The first step is identifying which of 3 categories of historical data, salient, contextual or patterned, is causing us to take action. Salient data is surprising, contextual data frames how we interpret things, and patterned data spears to have regular and reliable form. 

After identifying which category you’re working with, bring awareness to the cognitive biases that are typically triggered by each of the 3 categories. Salient data can cause salience bias, “in which we overweight new or noteworthy information, resulting in suboptimal decision-making, planning errors, and more.” Contextual data can cause framing bias. This means the context in which we experience something impacts how we view the experience. The same thing, framed in two different ways, can completely shift how we interpret the information. Lastly, patterned data can cause the clustering illusion. The human brain is programmed to look for patterns in order to make informed future decisions. However, the clustering illusion can cause us to view random events as patterns that don’t actually exist. 

While it may seem counterintuitive, we don’t actually need to have all the information to make a logical and rational decision. What is necessary is to take time identifying the information that matters most to this specific decision needed to be made. To do this effectively, begin the decision-making process where you’d typically end. Ask yourself, “So what? What do I really need to know to understand the situation? What difference would this information make? And how do I expect to use it?” These questions can help you zone in on the information that is critical to solving the issue while disregarding the information that’s not. While it may not intuitively make sense, we are able to solve a problem despite having outstanding questions.

After deciding what information is necessary in order to begin problem solving, the next step is to create questions to get the answers that are needed.

The last step is creating questions that elicit the answers needed. It’s hard to come up with a rational decision when we aren’t fully aware of the question being asked. It’s helpful to organize your questions into four main categories: behavior, opinion, feeling, and knowledge. Questions about behavior helps us obtain descriptions of actual experiences, activities, and actions. Questions about opinions helps us learn people’s goals, intentions, desires and values. Questions about feelings can allow us to move past factual information and into actions. Lastly, questions about knowledge “assess what the person being questioned considers to be factual”. These four types of questions can be utilized for all three categories of data previously discussed. 

Utilizing the steps outlined in this blog allows us to account for the inevitable emotional response that comes with decision making. In a time where there’s significant uncertainty, being able to regulate our emotions is vital to be able to make rational and effective decisions. By doing so, we allow ourselves to continue to move forward through our lives.   

If you’ve found yourself struggling with indecisiveness or managing uncertainty, it may be useful to talk to a licensed therapist. Get in touch with Symmetry Counseling online, or call us at 312-578-9990 to schedule a therapy session with one of our dedicated therapists!

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