Avoid Mental Mistakes When Making Complex Decisions

Published: Aug 04, 2017
Modified: May 19, 2020

By AMA Staff

Why do most people find it difficult to make complex decisions? One obstacle is that a lifetime of decision making causes us to make mental mistakes.

Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, an investigative journalist and consultant, explains it this way in a podcast interview with AMA Edgewise: Because people make so many decisions—some 35,000 a day—they develop “mental shortcuts” to facilitate day-to-day decision making. When they need to make complex decisions, shortcuts such as assumptions and biases remain firmly in place.

“That’s really where we need a decision-making system that can pry open cognitive spaces to control for and counteract those biases, assumptions, and judgments that we so heavily rely upon every day but that don’t go away when we’re solving for complex problems,” said Strauss Einhorn, the founder of CSE Consulting and author of Problem Solved: A Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence and Conviction (Career Press, 2017).

A framework for making complex decisions

Strauss Einhorn has developed a system, the AREA Method, to help people make complex decisions well in their personal and professional lives. In the podcast, she describes how the method assists with researching and making a decision:

  • A = absolute information. This is information that comes from the target of the decision.
  • R = relative information. This information comes from sources who are connected to the research target.
  • E = exploration and exploitation. With exploration, you go beyond document-based sources to identify people who can provide insight into the decision. With exploitation, you explore how you think as a decision maker and look at your assumptions against the evidence collected.
  • A = analysis. Here, you process the information and consider how to be most successful at what would be a good outcome for you.

According to Strauss Einhorn, this “perspective taking process” can help people overcome an entrenched mindset. In a team setting, for example, your understanding of a problem may differ from another person’s as you each use your own lens to evaluate the facts.

“By using a perspective taking process, you’re not only building empathy and awareness with other people, you’re getting a two for one.... By trying to better understand their incentives and motives and how they see the information, you’re also mirroring back ‘How do I think and feel?’” she said. “And that helps to bubble up those cognitive biases of your own.” Listen to the full podcast with Cheryl Strauss Einhorn.