Decision framework

Posted on 2022-01-07 byVlad Călin

Reading time of 1 minutes

Decisions, decisions... am I right? Each day we need to make a lot of small decisions: what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, what route to take to wherever we want to go, etc.

For most people, taking decisions can be crippling, as they get bombarded by doubt and fear of making the wrong decision. What if they are making literally the worst decision?

The truth is that I used to be like that too. I was pretty insecure and feared taking decisions. I over-thought every decision I had to make, finally settling on making none. Or worse, the one I'm the most familiar with for no other reason than familiarity.

There are some common patterns in decision-making I see among the people, that indicate they are afraid to take one, and will settle for less than optimal outcomes just to avoid being them the one taking responsibility for it.

The most common types of decisions you'll encounter are:

  • picking a discrete value from a range: a group of friends unable to settle on a specific hour/date for an event, due to fear of getting their proposals rejected or inconveniencing their peers
  • picking from a set of choices: when you need to pick from a set of choices (eg. what kind of pizza to buy at a restaurant). For this kind of choice, you wonder "what if the other one is better?". Now it's not about the fear of messing up, but the fear of missing out (FOMO).
  • act or pass: An event happens and you can react to it in a certain way. You need to decide whether you ignore it or act on it. Real life examples of this might be getting a job offer, a person next to you falls and asks for your help, the person in front of you at the supermarket is missing a few bucks to pay for their groceries, etc. In this instance, people prefer to pass, causing the "Bystander effect", because they won't leave their comfort zone.
  • picking a solution when you don't know what the possible choices are: This is a tricky one, because it is a combination of "picking from a set of choices" and "act or pass" and is usually about solving problems and searching for a solution. For example, at work, we are tasked to implement a specific feature for a client (software development jargon, 'cause that's what I do for food and shelter and that's all I know), but we fear that making the wrong decision will cripple our performance and may even cost our job. It's comfortable to wait a little more, postpone the decision in the idea of "I'll do some more research and make a better calculated decision later". Then you end up postponing the decision until you can't postpone it anymore. Then you make a rushed decision and try to cut corners to make up for the time wasted "researching".

Next, I'll take each type of decision making and outline what I do for each of them and my approach to such dillemas

Picking a discrete value from a range

Picking from a range is fairly simple. You know the minimum value, you know the maximum value. But which one is the optimum value? What is that magical number that will satisfy all the requirements?

In my opinion, this is the easiest kind of decision to make. You just need a starting point, and then adjust.

How you pick the starting point? Depends on how much information you have at hand. The you try to guess the closest you can, and then do the adjusting if necessary (usually it's necessary to adjust afterwards, you can't perfectly pick like that, if you could, it would have not been such a hard decision to make at all).

For example, let's take the example with the group of friends. When would be the best time for 5 people to hang out? They all have their own lives, pre-made plans, etc, so how can you pick a day and hour when they all have a few hours available?

For starters, let's see what information we have: most people work from 9 to 17 or 18 and they don't drink in the morning. Now we have a palette of choices we can make: every day from 19, and in the weekends after 17. Seems reasonable

A common approach which is highly inefficient is for everybody to tell their available intervals, and somebody should cross check them and find that interval when everybody is available. Who's gonna be that person? Remember the act or pass? Well, most likely nobody is going to take this responsibility upon themselves.

A better approach would be to have a starting point: for example Thursday at 19:00. Then people say if they are available, and if they are not, they propose a new time. It's way faster, nobody needs to make a decision, because the decision makes itself. No matter the starting point, eventually you will reach a positive outcome (if there is one possible).

Picking from a set of choices

When you are presented with a set of choices and you need to pick one, it's trouble: what if I pick literally the worst thing? Or if you are a perfectionist and can't stand the idea of not picking the best thing?

When presented with this kind of choice it all depends on the kind of information you have at hand: do you know something about the attributes of the choices? What makes them good? What makes them bad? Did you make this choice before and you know for sure some of the choices are good or bad?

If you have some information available, you can blacklist or whitelist some choices. If you know attributes, you can order the choices based on those attributes. Afterwards, choosing a better thing is easier and will yield a better result than choosing blindly.

What if you have no information? Well, then it's time for picking at random. If it's a repeatable choice, you are gathering information, and for next picks, you will not start from zero again. The best outcome when picking at random is to maximize the amount of information gathered.

For example, you have to pick your dinner tonight, and there are three restaurants on your way home where you could pick up a meal. Let's say they don't have online presence at all and you can't tell which one has a better public perception (although if they don't have an online presence in 2022, they shouldn't be considered at all).

One is mexican, one is chinese and one is a classic fast food joint. Which one do you pick? Mexican is spicy, chinese doesn't look the great and fast food is ... well ... fast food. Which one do you pick? What you are trying to maximize? Price per calorie? Taste? Visual prowess? You want to get home as fast as possible so the cook time is more important?

Depending on those factors, you need to figure out where each restaurant stands and make a better decision.

Later on

I'm going to write about the last two types of choices later on. That's all for now!