There are little decisions to make in life like what to wear to work and what to eat for lunch. Then there are potentially life-changing decisions like whether to move, take a new job, break up with someone, or get married. With these big decisions, you may never have faced that choice before, have to sacrifice one path to choose another, and have a hard time figuring out the right way to go. As a result of the high stakes and high uncertainty, we often flounder in this kind of decision-making, sometimes failing to make any decision at all.
My guests have studied those who have to make these kinds of critical choices more often — first responders and members of the military — to figure out how civilians can make better decisions in their everyday lives. Their names are Laurence Alison and Neil Shortland, and they’re the authors of Decision Time: How to Make the Choices Your Life Depends On. Today on the show, Laurence and Neil explain the mistakes people commonly fall into when making big decisions, including getting stuck in a cycle of redundant deliberation, where you forever circle around your options without ever pulling the trigger on one. They then unpack their model for more effective decision-making, including why it should follow a foxtrot pattern, and how to know when it’s time to stop ruminating and finally make a choice. Along the way, we discuss the importance of self-awareness in this process, and what it is you need to know about yourself to make better decisions.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Conflict — How Soldiers Make Impossible Decisions by Neil and Laurence
- AoM Podcast #648 with Laurence on building rapport
- AoM Podcast #744 with Laurence on life lessons from the labors of Hercules
- AoM Podcast #486: How to Get Better at Making Life-Changing Decisions
- AoM Podcast #740: Life’s 10 Biggest Decisions
- AoM Podcast #685: How to Decide
- AoM #644: How to Develop Greater Self-Awareness
- AoM Article: How to Wrestle with a Difficult Decision: Advice from Sergeant Alvin C. York
- Study on “inappropropriate persistence”
- Maximizers vs. Satisficers/Minimizers
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now there are little decisions to make in life like what to wear to work and want to eat for lunch. Then there are potentially life-changing decisions like whether to move, take a new job, break up with someone or get married. With these big decisions, you may never face the choice before, have to sacrifice one path to choose another and have a hard time figuring out the right way to go. As a result of the high stakes and high uncertainty, we often flounder in this kind of decision-making, sometimes failing to make any decision at all. My guest has studied those who have to make these kinds of critical choices more often, first responders and members of the military, to figure out how civilians can make better decisions in their everyday lives. Their names are Lawrence Allison and Neil Shortland and they’re the authors of Decision Time: How to Make the Choices Your Life Depends On. Today on the show, Lawrence and Neil explain the mistakes people commonly fall into when making big decisions, including getting stuck in a cycle of redundant deliberation where you forever circle around the options without ever pulling the trigger on one. They then impact their model for more effective decision-making, including why you should follow a foxtrot pattern and how to know when it’s time to stop ruminating and finally make a choice.
Along the way, we discussed the importance of self-awareness in the process and what it is you need to know about yourself to make better decisions. After the show’s over, check out our show notes @aom.is/decisiontime. Alright. Well, Lawrence Allison, welcome back to the show. Neil Shortland, welcome to the show.
Neil Shortland: Thank you for having me.
Lawrence Allison: Thank you for having us again.
Brett McKay: Lawrence, we’ve had you on the podcast in the past to discuss two very different topics. The first time we had you on, we discussed what you’ve learned about building social Rapport from being an expert in criminal interrogation, and then the second time we talked about what we can learn about life from the Mythical Labors of Hercules. You got a new book out that you’ve co-authored with Niel, it’s called Decision Time; it’s all about decision making. So let’s start off with a bit of your respective backgrounds. Let’s start with you Lawrence, some listeners may already be familiar with you, but can you give us a little bit of review on your background, and then Neil, what’s your background? And how did you two wind up working together on this book?
Lawrence Allison: Yeah, so I’m a psychologist, broadly speaking, a forensic, but also do a lot of organizational psychology, as you said Brett, you very kindly had us on before to talk about Rapport, and my other area of interest is decision-making. So I mean, in brief, I deal with things that include difficult communication and difficult decisions, been doing that for the last 30 years, and that’s me.
Brett McKay: Neil.
Neil Shortland: Thank you. So not to age Lawrence, but I was actually a student of his in 2011, on the master’s program in Liverpool, in which I was briefly introduced to some of the research and the ideas around how, I think, real people make decisions in the real world, and then for me, I actually ended up moving off and working with the UK Armed Forces and then moving to America and studying kind of security psychology. But throughout all of it, I kind of kept this real interest in a paper Lawrence wrote in 2012 about kind of what police decision-making looked like in these kind of fast-moving, counter-terrorism operations. And so I went back to Lawrence a couple of years later and kinda had this idea of, what if we look at this extreme decision-making psychology, but let’s add in this kind of military interest and angle that I kind of picked up along the way?
So for that, I think five or six years we kind of worked with the army over here and the army in the UK and lots of different agencies studying the real human process of making really difficult, high uncertainty decisions. And then I think kind of seeing the positive outputs of Lawrence writing Rapport and a book really aimed at the general population and translating our kind of psychology for a much larger audience, we had a thought that a really nice idea would be to do the same thing with decision-making, ’cause the more you talk about studying decision-making with everyone in your life, the more they tell you they really need help making decisions and they wish they understood their own decisions. And so that kind of brought us, I think, to the point of writing Decision Time, which was this translational piece of all of these soldiers and police and fire and all these difficult decisions we have studied and trying to use that to help people in their everyday lives with the decisions that they focus on and struggle with.
Brett McKay: Okay. So this type of decisions you’re focusing on this book are not everyday decisions, they’re not like, what am I gonna have for lunch? As you said, Neil, these are extreme decisions, like 1% of decisions people have to make. In the military, in the police, I can see the type of things that people would have to make a decision, whether to engage with an enemy, shoot, not shoot. For an average person, what kind of decisions, extreme decisions does a regular person have to face?
Lawrence Allison: There’s lots of books about decision-making and how to improve your life, but as Neil said, we’ve been dealing, in my case, for the last 30 years, with people that make life-changing decisions. And although that is within military, security services, law-enforcement and so on, nonetheless, we often find ourselves at a crossroads where we’re making a really difficult life-changing decision and it could be something as benign as, what house will I buy? But that said, sometimes these decisions are really, really important and are really difficult, that might be to do with whether to have cancer treatment or an end of life decision or something that is heavier, that is consequential, that is not reversible, that is high stakes, that does carry uncertainty and does carry risk. So they’re the, I guess, less than 1% of decisions that we might face but that are going to change our lives. And that’s why we wrote the book.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So okay, the stakes are high, a lot of uncertainty and other characteristics of the decisions, often times you just have to make that decision once in your entire life, and so you don’t have any patterns to look back on on how to make the decision, ’cause you haven’t faced it before and you probably never will again.
Neil Shortland: I think one of the things that I’d add is, so from… When we were doing the original work with the soldiers, I remember talking to a VA clinician about the kind of decisions that we were specifically focusing on. And the way she phrased them, which I always really liked was she called them kind of ‘Shoulda, woulda, coulda’ decisions, and what made these decisions that we studied so tricky was that, when the people made the decision, you could realistically see that both options could be good and both options could be bad. And very few decisions actually truly present in that way and it makes them very difficult to make, because even if you choose path A, it’s very easy to convince yourself that path B also could’ve been as good. And I think when we look at our everyday decision-making and the decisions we make in our life, it’s not every decision that presents itself that way, but there are, as Lawrence said, these life-changing, path-changing decisions we all face maybe around taking a job, maybe around ending a relationship, maybe around moving country for love or career or whatever it may be, and if it’s those decisions that both options could be really good or could be really bad, you’ve never had to make that calculation or that decision before and there is that high uncertainty.
Again, we’ve all experienced that, but as Lawrence said, it’s a rarer form of decision, but the impact and potential of these decisions is so, so much higher. And then the other thing that makes choice so difficult, and from a psychological standpoint, is in order to choose one cause of action, you necessarily have to sacrifice what the other course of action is offering you, and very few forms of decisions make you have to do that. Again, it’s a specific form of decision-making, but it is psychologically, I think the most difficult because you have to sacrifice, you have to argue to yourself and you’re starting from a place of really not knowing whether A or B is the right choice or the right outcome for you.
Lawrence Allison: Just to follow up on Neil’s thing, just by way of giving an example, we talk about in the book, we compare, which might be a weird comparison, but we talk about the Thai cave rescue where, what Neal was saying is, if you take one course of action and you send a SEAL in to go and save the kids, once you’ve committed to that course of action, it could go wrong, but you’re not gonna know whether that goes wrong until you commit. And in the same way, it might seem a ridiculous comparison, but if you’ve been in a relationship for many, many years and you decide to end that relationship, you can’t then not end it, you can’t have both pathways, you can’t have your cake and eat it.
Once you’ve made that commitment, those decisions that are irreversible are particularly difficult because you can’t play at that parallel universe version of that decision that you didn’t make or that choice that you didn’t take and see whether it would have been better or worse and that is what often causes hesitation. So one of the other things I wanna emphasize is this, that often it’s important to commit to what it is that you’re gonna do because a lot of people spend their lives waiting and thinking but not acting. So the other thing that this book touches on quite a lot is this thorny problem that we’ve seen a lot in emergency services, law enforcement and so on, that they’re not actually making erroneous decisions, they are failing to commit to a course of action. And you see this time and time again, whether it’s a terrorist event or a disaster management thing, organizations are often criticized for being slow to act or not acting at all, rather than making a really catastrophically bad decision. It’s about pace, timing and accuracy.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I wanna dig more into decision hesitation, decision inertia, ’cause I thought that was really interesting. But before we do, in your experience, when you’ve looked at the research literature and also just in your own experience, when an organization or an individual faces one of these extreme decisions where it’s super uncertain, you only have to make it once, the stakes are high, what’s the typical decision pattern or method that people fall back on to, and why do they fall short?
Lawrence Allison: Well, we’ve done quite a lot of work on the difference between novices and elite performers in this regard, and there are basically four mistakes that novices make that elite performers don’t. The first… And actually, all of these things are about proportionality and moderation. It’s a bit like the Rapport book where we’re talking about anything that’s extreme is usually bad, it’s the same kind of principle here. And what we know that our elite performers do are, first of all, when they are trying to weigh up what it is they are dealing with and diagnose the actual problem itself, they will develop two or three plausible explanations for what’s going on.
Novices either develop one and stick to it and confirm everything in that one direction, or they develop a huge proliferation of possibilities and they can’t juggle them in their mind. So proportionate development of three or four options to explain what’s going on and then digging into them to decide which best accounts for the situation, that’s the first thing. The second thing is time management. Our elite performers are neither too slow nor too quick. They know they need to ask about time or consider time as a factor that they need to consider, and if they think that the window of opportunity is collapsing quickly, they will go with the best option that they can given that time constraint. They also are able to [0:11:23.8] ____ if they do have more time and if you do, you should use it. If you’ve got more time to firm up the situation, you should use it.
Novices either act too quickly or too slowly and often don’t ask about time at all. The third thing is that our experts are able to adapt, so novices suffer from what we call entrainment. They will develop an idea, they will stick with that idea, and even in the face of compelling evidence that suggest they should change tact, they don’t. Our experts are able to recognize and respond to those cues rapidly and change accordingly. And then the fourth thing is the ability to revise the plan, the ability to throw out the plan that was developed, that was right for then, but isn’t right for now. So those are the four sort of mistakes people make. Too much faffing around trying to figure it out, not considering time at all or just pondering forever, failing to adapt to the new circumstances and being unprepared to revise. Our elite performers don’t do that, but I’ve got to say, our elite performers are rare, why? Because if this is 1% of the times that you have to make a decision, as Neil said, you don’t have that lexicon of experience behind you to be used to dealing with these novel or unique events.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think most people, what they do when they face a tough decision, at least this is my method, is I’ll go online and see, “Well, did someone else have this problem?” And see how they made the decision. But it’s kind of useful, but in the end it’s not… I usually find it not very useful because that person’s situation is so unique that it’s like, “Well, okay, this doesn’t apply to me. I don’t… I can’t do anything with this.”
Neil Shortland: Well, I think that’s a… It’s a really good point and it’s an interesting method, Brett, and I think it links to I think one of the points that we’ll hopefully talk about throughout the interview. But one of the big things we emphasize about these forms of decisions is that they are often deeply personal, as in what the right decision is varies based on who the decision maker is.
So to give you an example, when we were writing the book, it was kind of at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the things that a lot of people were talking about was how young couples were handling the decision to get married or not get married or delay or do it by Zoom and all of these kind of things. And looking at that decision, I think you could always… You could look at what other people were doing, you could look at were they doing it via Zoom, you could look at whether they were delaying three years, five years, 10 years, whatever it was. But to make that decision correctly, really it’s just… What matters is what is right for you in that moment and that’s one of the things I think the book really emphasizes on, is that it is always good to look at other people and think about maybe what other people have done, but at the end of the day, what we preach is this idea of know thyself, and so it really comes down to, I think what makes you be able to make that decision is being able to look inside of yourself and know what truly matters to you, ’cause it may be different to what these other people have done and how other people in the past have made that decision in that moment.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s circle back to this idea of decision inertia, why is it when we face these big decisions with high stakes, lots of uncertainty that we typically don’t do anything? Like what’s going on cognitively to cause that?
Lawrence Allison: Well, what people tend to do is they go through a process that we call redundant deliberation. It’s really weird actually because it’s using a lot of cognitive effort for no gain. They will think about option B and think about all the permutations for option B, they would think about option A and all the permutations for option A, and they will just not be able to decide between the two, ’cause they don’t want to commit, they don’t want to end that relationship, they don’t want to have that kind of treatment because not having it could be better or staying with the same person could be better, so the sort of in perpetuity just keeps circling around and around these plausible options. So my view that I used myself, two things that I ask myself that I think are useful when you’re faced with these are, one, do I have to decide now? You need to understand whether that decision is fast-paced or slow-paced, and if it’s fast-paced, maybe you need to make a decision now. But most decisions aren’t super fast, and so therefore you do need to slow things down and seek more information, but you can’t put an infinite timeline on it, you have to put something that’s proportional.
The second thing I always ask myself is this, what is the goal? What do I want this to end up looking like? And we’ve found it with police before or even just every day decisions, people get fixated on the decision, but not the ending point, not the goal. What is it ultimately that you want out of this? And Neil, I don’t know if you wanna talk about your own personal experience with your wedding, ’cause I know we went through it ourselves, but there was a lot of debate. But when you articulated what the goal was, the decision presented itself easily, so I don’t know if you wanna give that example.
Neil Shortland: Well, I can ’cause I think it’s interesting. So when we think about indecision, and I think one of the really interesting things about Lawrence’s work historically on this and some of the things that we brought into the book is, psychology is kind of the emphasis on stimulus response and most of psychological research is set up to force the person to choose something and assess the choice that they made. So the idea of, I guess studying the absence of a choice is actually quite psychologically odd, but one of the things that we see is it’s really, really pervasive, and you see it in everyday life, and there are different ways that people try and avoid decisions, from avoiding it completely to knowing what they want, but never, as Lawrence mentioned earlier, never actually behavior really committing to it. And it’s a really easy pattern to fall into.
And when I think about your question, Brett, what… How do we kind of overcome it and what does it… What kind of causes it? The thing that I always come back to, I think is fear encouraged being essential here. Because when you look at a true… A true difficult decision, so what we would call a least worst decision that we kind of talk about in the book, so all the examples we gave earlier, leaving relationships, changing jobs, moving countries, divorces, how to have a marriage, all this kind of stuff, choosing something and committing to a course of action requires great courage because you know that in doing so, you’re actively losing something by choosing the choice that you’ve made. And so I will give the example that Lawrence gave that I think a lot of young couples faced in 2020. So I was with my now wife, Spoiler, I guess to the decision we made, but we had that horrible decision in May of 2020, of do we get married via Zoom or some form of stripped down COVID wedding, or do we delay and have the big 100-person, 150-person wedding that we’d spend two years planning. And we ended up choosing to get married via Zoom.
And why I say that courage is so important is that when we made that choice, and so you know, we knew that we were gonna do it on the original date, just a few people, completely socially distant, with no family coming, no friends flying over. We knew that it was going to hurt and you know that it is a difficult decision, and even though you know that you’ve chosen the right thing, you still have to have courage because you know that you’ve sacrificed things that are really, really important to you. And I think that’s what really difficult choices require of you, they really require courage ’cause you know that even if you think or know you’re choosing something that’s right, you’re still losing something that mattered to you, and that’s why these decisions are so difficult. And so I think when it comes to this idea of overcoming inertia, of committing to decisions and making them in the real world…
One of the things that Lawrence and I talk about a lot in the book is just the value of courage, and that’s because fear of loss is such an innate human thing, we are designed to protect our resources, we hate the idea of loss. But a choice requires you to embrace loss and stare loss in the face because whatever you do, whatever you choose, you will have to lose something, you will have to sacrifice something. And so it’s this real balance, I think, of being brave enough to tolerate the loss in the knowledge that you are embracing the greater good or embracing the right choice for the right reasons.
Brett McKay: My own experience, the thing that causes me to put off decisions is that rumination trap that Lawrence was talking about, and like you said, it’s really sneaky because it feels like you’re doing something, It’s like, I’m really thinking about this, but you’re just going in circles just over and over again. You have to decide, “I gotta make a decision, this is not doing anything,” you have to catch yourself doing it and then just make the decision and move forward.
Neil Shortland: It’s kind of almost this curve of diminishing returns, and so we’ve planned a study recently where we kind of… We get people to make a series of decisions, and you can give… We ask them if they want more information, there are about five different information injects. And what’s really interesting is some people will say they want no information whatsoever and they just dive right in and that’s not good, and then some people want all of the information and eventually you have to kind of say, there’s no more information, just come on, come on and do the decision. And the Goldilocks in this is someone kind of in the middle who takes some early information and really helps themselves understand the situation, invest a little bit of time early on, but then knows that anything more that they’re getting out isn’t really helping them, and now is the time to just kind of get out of that redundant deliberation and just move on to the making of the decision. And it’s something interesting. And Lawrence, you might wanna talk about this from some of the work that we’ve done together, but we kind of identified this interesting Fox-Trot pattern that some of our better decisions makers engaged in, which is where they were, I think…
What is it like? Slow, slow, quick, quick. My dancing knowledge might be a little off.
Lawrence Allison: Yes, slow, slow, quick, quick. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow, actually.
Neil Shortland: Okay. So what this was is we were doing a study with military or police, I think it was, and looking at the different patterns that people use to make decisions, and what we found was there was this one pattern that people engaged in, which was kind of fast, fast, slow, slow, which was that they moved through the information gathering stage really, really quickly, but then they got really stuck on the actual process of having to choose between the options, and then there was this kind of more… I think it was the more senior officers who actually demonstrated this pattern, which was kind of this idea of the slow, slow, quick, quick, which was that they took more time to gather the information, they took a bit more time to comprehend the situation, and then when it came to making the decision, they were much faster to be able to choose what the right option to them was.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. You devote a chapter and you mentioned it early on about, if you wanna make better decisions, you have to know thyself. How does greater self-awareness improve decision-making? What do we need to know about ourself in order to make better decisions?
Lawrence Allison: Well certainly, one of the things that we’re repeatedly finding is that there’s this attribute called maximization or minimization, which in really simple terms is, if you tend to be a maximizer, you’re the sort of person that wants everything to work out really well, so you find it very hard to tolerate a poor outcome or even an outcome where there’s two options, both of them look bad and you’re not really prepared to even pick the least bad one, so there’s really bad and bad, but you just don’t want the bad one. And people that are maximizers, we tend to find, suffer more from this kind of redundant deliberation or constant rumination because they’re thinking… Basically feeling regretful about a future scenario that they find intolerable. Whereas, minimizers, which is the kind of alternative sort of thinking approach is, okay, this is not ideal, but I’d rather have this least bad option than the really bad one. So part of this is knowing whether you’re a minimizer or a maximizer, and they’re not necessarily one better than the other, but if you score very high on maximization, you tend to be the sort of person that will ruminate in perpetuity.
So that’s one function. The other thing that we know quite a lot about is this thing called need for closure, and in simple terms the idea of that is if you are the sort of person that requires a lot of predictability, certainty, order, decisiveness, you wanna know exactly what time you’re gonna meet at the restaurant, how many people are gonna be there, what’s gonna be on the menu, dadadada, that type of thing can slow people down as well, so people that can tolerate ambiguity, which is the opposite of need for closure, tend to be faster time decision makers. So the broad concept about knowing yourself, and I think Neil spoke about this earlier, is knowing what your value system is, where you wanna stack your tokens, what matters to you most and having good insight into that and being able to articulate that and face yourself in the mirror and think about it will help you identify the absolute critical function of decision-making, which is, what is my goal? Where do I wanna end up? What am I prepared to sacrifice and what I’m not, and Neil did a lot of work on what we call sacred and secular values, so just a little segue on that. Where you have a sacred value, it’s something which is non-negotiable. So if we talk about military sacred value, you might have a sacred value of, “Leave no man behind.”
A secular value is something that you’d like to retain but isn’t critical and might be negotiable, but where you have a problem is where two sacred values collide. So in military ops, what we found that if you’ve got the sacred value of leave no man behind and complete the mission, and we design a scenario which has both of those colliding, that’s where you find it difficult to tease those two things apart. So sacred values are the ones that are really tricky to negotiate. One other thing I just wanna add about a Fox-Trot thinking, which I think is interesting, and to just reinforce this point for listeners, stacking your tokens at the front end of the thinking is a good idea. To think about what it is that you are dealing with carefully and diagnose what you’re dealing with is really important, that then enables you to speed up.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah. Lawrence, we talked about the sacred/secular problem in our conversation about Hercules facing decisions. We had sacred values in conflict with each other and it made decisions tough.
Lawrence Allison: Yeah, yeah. Without segueing into the Hercules thing, we had that exact situation, didn’t we? Where he’d left one of his compadres behind after a scrap and that was a difficult thing to do. It kind of ruined him and created a degree of moral injury, and that’s not uncommon in soldier scenarios. But Neil may have something to say about this as well.
Neil Shortland: Well, no. I think it’s all tethered to the idea of kind of knowing thyself. And so the one thing that I’ve heard, most of the feedback I’ve had from the book from family member and friends is they call me and they say, “Oh, you wouldn’t believe it, I’m a maximizer.” And I’m like, “Well, yes, objectively, I probably could have told you that.” And they always say, “Well, it’s a bad thing” and I always say, “It’s not a bad thing, being a maximizer isn’t a bad thing. But knowing yourself means that you know what your miss is going to be.” And so what we talk about in the decision making is that there are times to be a maximizer and there are times when you really can’t maximize. And what you wanna avoid is the attempt to maximize in a non or un-maximizable situation.
And I think it’s really kind of one of the important things that knowing thyself means, is you know the pattern you’re gonna fall into, you know what your personality trait is and what you’re going to want from a decision. And sometimes it’s about knowing that the decision that you’re facing just isn’t gonna let you have everything and accepting that and being able to move on. And I think that links to what Lawrence was just saying, is kind of the second part of knowing thyself, which is literally about knowing thy values. And one of the formative books as we were writing the original book, we wrote a book called Conflict: How Soldiers Make Impossible Decisions, which kind of was our platform for writing Decision Time, was Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art. Basically the art to a happy life, or the art to happy living is knowing the one thing that you care about so much that you’re willing to sacrifice everything else.
And that has always been our kind of framework of knowing thyself and this discussion of sacred values, is looking at a decision and knowing the one value, if you can, the one value that absolutely matters more to you than anything else. And it’s really difficult to do. And we give examples in the book from people that we’ve met and people that we’ve worked with. And we have friends who we’ve watched face these kind of decisions. You’re given this brand new promotion or this brand new job opportunity, and it’s really important to you that you chase your career and you have value in your work and you achieve everything you can, but that’s running directly against something else that might be investment in the family and spending time with your young children and your wife as they grow up and they do these foundational moments of taking their first steps, saying their first words.
And what a good decision maker has to be able to do is to sit there and work out, “I have two values going against each other and whatever choice I make I’m going to run over one of those values, so which one can I absolutely not sacrifice in any way? Is it myself, my career, my confidence and my identity? Or is it me as a family member, me as a father, me contributing to the household? And if people aren’t able to know thyself and know that value and links back to the Heracles example that Lawrence gave in your prior podcast of, you actually risk this idea of moral injuries. When you make a decision that sacrifices something that’s truly, truly important to you, that’s a specific form of trauma that you can have from making the wrong decision in a crucial moment. And so all of our model of decision-making, it’s all based on first and foremost knowing who you are, knowing your patterns and your tendencies and your psychology and then knowing, really being able to work out what actually matters to you when it comes to making this decision, whether it’s the gold or the values.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s move on and talk about your decision making model and it’s called STAR, it’s an acronym, and the S in STAR stands for situational awareness or storytelling. What’s involved in developing good situational awareness? Any questions people should be asking when they face a decision and they’re trying to get their bearings on the situation?
Neil Shortland: So when it comes to situational awareness, I guess there are kind of… The original model is that there are kind of three stages of situational awareness, which is kind of identifying the patterns in the environment or cues in the environment that matter, webbing them together to get kind of get an understanding of what’s going on, and then this third layer is kind of using that to project what will happen if you do action A or do action B. And as Lawrence kinda mentioned earlier, the thing about situational awareness is it’s about not just going all in, originally just going all in on this one assessment of the situation, having adaptability and the flexibility to think about, what are the other factors that could be going on? What are the different interpretations of this situation? And we talk about in the book, one of these early trainings that Lawrence gave, and I think at the time I was kind of helping alongside.
But we gave this early training to police officers, kind of policing the tube during the, I think it was 2012 or 2014 Olympics in London, and what we talked to them about was this idea of, when you’re stressed, when you’re tired, when you’re hot, when you’ve got all of these things going on, you’re running out of resources and the natural pattern is to think you know what’s going on, to not test it, to not think of alternatives, and just to basically just go all in on this one assessment of the situation. And I think kind of in the S model of our STAR, what we really preach about is being open and flexible to thinking or holding in your mind, are there two or three potential explanations for this situation? Potential interpretations of what I’m seeing in front of me and what this means. And the extreme of that is something that Lawrence and I have talked about and we recently put a paper out, about, the best decision makers are, when they have to be they’re kind of grim storytellers, they have imagination, they’re really able to think critically about what their situation is.
And so with the S stage of the model, it’s finding a calibration between these two extremes that Lawrence mentioned earlier, right. The first is just… The first extreme is just seeing something thinking you know exactly what’s going on and diving right in with this kind of singular interpretation of the situation; This has happened and I think it’s gonna be this. On the very, very other end, is not really knowing or committing to any kind of interpretation and just thinking that, well, there are 100 things that could explain this and I can’t really move forward because I don’t really know possibly anything that’s going on in this situation. And in the middle, there’s this kind of sweet spot of being able to identify a few plausible explanations and taking the time to kind of game those explanations against each other to really get the best understanding of the situation that you can. Because everything about a decision stems from what you actually think is going on and how you’re interpreting kind of the information that’s in front of you.
Lawrence Allison: The key takeaways from that, I think, are, don’t over-ruminate about every possibility. Conjure in your head two or three possibilities and make sure that one of them, which I know is a bit unpleasant, but one of them should be, what’s the worst case scenario here? What is the… If I think this is going on, okay, I don’t really wanna go there and think it’s maybe this bad, but, you know what? Perhaps I do need to think it’s maybe this bad, because then the shock of it being that reality is less damning and you are prepared to deal with it. So simple takeaways, think about what it is you’re dealing with, have no more than three, that’s a bit of a rule of thumb, but it’s hard to have in your mind more than kind of three possible situational models about what you’re dealing with. Make sure one of them is the worst possible scenario.
Brett McKay: Okay. And what’s interesting is that all this, you don’t… You’re admitting that you don’t know what the situation is exactly ’cause you have three different options.
Lawrence Allison: Yeah, so you are alive to the possibility that there are three ways to explain what it is that you’re seeing. So say you wanna end a relationship or… I think we talk about a mastectomy there, whether you’re gonna have your breast removed in relation to cancer; you wanna sort of think about, what does this look like? What’s the worst case scenario? Or what do I value? Maybe this could happen, this could happen and this could happen. Three options. Best case scenario, worst case scenario, somewhere in between, but don’t ruminate on that forever. At that point, it gives you some kind of idea about how much… What work you need to do to disentangle whether it’s more likely to be one, two or three in the same way that perhaps someone that’s dealing with an illness is gonna be looking at it. Someone comes to the doctor and they present with various symptoms, that doctor should be thinking, “Well, this could be this bad, it could be cancer and therefore what do we need to do to firm up whether it is. What tests do we need to do that?” However, it could be something benign and that’s a plausible scenario as well, and it’s to that stage that you should seek to interrogate information that will help you push forward one of those three scenarios more than the other.
But like I say, when you’re considering these existential pathways, you do have to contemplate the worst case scenario. It gives you much more stretch in your imagination to be able to deal with what is gonna eventually be coming at you.
Brett McKay: Alright, so the next part of the Star Model, T stands for time mastery. Why is when we make a decision important and then what happens if your timing is off?
Lawrence Allison: Because if it’s imminent and the decisions move past you, you’re not good basically. It does surprise me how often people don’t even consider time. Our really poor decision-makers don’t even ask about it, they don’t think, “Do I have to decide now, how much time have I got?” They just think they’ve got all the time in the world. And for most of us, most of the time, happily, we do have a bit of time to think about our decision. In military situations that isn’t always the case, but sometimes even in our own lives there is a time limit on which we should really… I mean, I’ve spoken to countless people, police officers that have stayed in the same job for years, and every year they’re saying, I kind of feel a bit burnt out with this job and maybe I should change and I’m not giving enough time to my family, what do you think? And then we’ll go through all the possible scenarios that they could do and maybe they could change this or they could change to another unit, and then they’ll come back a month later, same thing and again and again and again. And if you don’t have that externally imposed time pressure on you, with a shoot, no-shoot decision, you can just keep extending that deadline forever.
So ask, “Do I have to decide now.” More often than not you don’t have to decide imminently, but if you don’t have to decide imminently, then you need to start thinking about, what is a reasonable amount of time to allocate to this decision. And a pretty good tip to tell you that you have now run out of time is if you keep asking the same questions and you keep getting the same information, then you really don’t wanna be waiting a lot longer because there is no new information and you do now need to decide.
Brett McKay: What happens if you have to make a decision now? Is there a heuristic that people can use to know what’s the right thing to do or the best thing to do in that situation?
Lawrence Allison: Very simple terms, least worst first. This is bad, this is awful, let’s go with bad.
Neil Shortland: If there’s a huge time pressure and you absolutely have to make a decision right now and you honestly are staring at two or three horrible or bad options, the only thing to be able to do is really say to yourself, what is the one option that I, or the one miss that I cannot tolerate? And that’s that kind of that… If you can do it, that’s that kind of sacred value. And under time pressure, that may be the only thing you have time to try and reflect on or calculate.
Brett McKay: Okay, so the next part of STAR is A and that’s adaptation. What do you guys mean by that?
Neil Shortland: Well, I think adaptation’s a really critical stage, because I think when we… It kind of links a little bit to the first stage, which is situational awareness. But there’s some old psychology in kind of the 1990s on NASA, I think it’s NASA errors, and it found that most of the bad decisions or error-based decisions in this pilot sample was not because they didn’t understand what was going on, it’s because they understood what was going on, then the environment changed and they were unable to update or re-evaluate what was going on when new information was coming in. And so I think one of the things about… When we look at these decisions in the real world and these complicated decisions that people are facing, they’re iterative, they’re moving moments in time. And so sometimes the scene does change and sometimes the situation does change. And what we often see is that people fail to adapt and update their way of thinking And there’s a lot of… I think this links, probably the point in the book that I think links to a lot of the core psychology around decision makers is driven by heuristics and biases and cognitive closure.
And the fact that the… We are cognitive misers in the sense that we’re always trying to confirm what we currently think is correct anyway because it’s easier than having to re-update and re-evaluate and reconsider what we think we’re staring at. And so the adaptation phase is encouraging people that even if you’ve made the best assessment of the situation you can, and even if you have understood your relationship with time and when a decision needs to be made, and assuming that you haven’t missed the decision window, be open to updating your assessment of what’s going on. Be open to new information. Be willing to ask if things on the ground have changed, if your current understanding is no longer in date and needs to be updated. And it’s just an exercise in almost good cognition.
Good cognitive healthy behavior to re-evaluate, re-update, reintegrate and just to check that what you think is going on and assessed is going on is still there. And it’s really difficult. So one of the examples we have in the book is this interesting case of this guy, Jack, who’s offered this job out of the blue and it’s kind of a shiny new job with a shiny new promotion. And if anyone’s ever been offered a job or offered an opportunity, suddenly, the way you evaluate the current job, you’re almost looking for the negatives now. You’ve been offered this shiny new thing and it changes the way you look at everything around you. And that’s the brain, that’s the mind trying to make the decision easier by stripping away uncertainty and just closing itself off to any alternative way of thinking.
So when we make decisions our cognitive structure is sometimes working against us to make things simpler. And so adaptation in dynamic and difficult decisions is absolutely essential because people need to keep checking that their assumptions are correct, keep checking the situation is what they think it is. Is there anything new? Is there anything different? Is there a bit of information that really needs me to think differently that something else is actually going on here, that something has changed since I started trying to work through this decision. And it’s just one of those critical stages that we often don’t see and that old research has found it, our own research has found it, that yeah, people really need to focus on being adaptive and making sure that their assessment is always in time with what they’re facing.
Brett McKay: So the final part of STAR is R, and that stands for revision and resilience. And this can be a really hard part because often our tendencies… After we’ve made a decision, we’ve taken action and we’re doing it, even though we get new information and we see, like, “Oh, we should probably adapt,” it’s really hard to go back on your decision. It’s like, “Well, I made a decision, I gotta stick with it.” So how do you figure out whether or not you should stick with a decision or you should bail and change your mind to do something else?
Neil Shortland: So it’s a really interesting conundrum, and again, I think it speaks to just the way… Just the ethos of the kind of psychology we talk about in the book. And Lawrence mentioned it earlier, I think, “Nothing is good in extremes.” And so in the resilience chapter and revision, we really talk about this idea of change in its extremes. And so one extreme of change is someone who, the minute they face a difficulty, the minute they face a hardship, abandons course and immediately goes to find a new course of action and decides that their plan is a failure. And in psychology there’s a lot of theories and research on things like grit. So Angela Duckworth, her idea of grit is this kind of… This golden trait that predicts success is people’s ability to be gritty and work through things. And we talk about desirable difficulties as being able to work through difficult moments. And difficult decisions often require difficult moments.
So the wedding example I gave earlier, after making the decision, there were difficulties in telling people what your choice is. There’s difficulties, and if you change a job, it’s not immediately amazing sometimes. And in the first 6 to 12 months, there’s difficulties. If you leave a relationship, there’s difficulties, right? And so there’s this psychological idea that you have to work through those and that’s critical to success. And it is. And then on the other side, there’s another organizational psychologist who kind of studied this idea of persistence and identified this really interesting part of persistence called inappropriate persistence, which is kind of this idea of just persisting for the sake of persisting because you just want to persist, right? Which is almost like the complete opposite end of the spectrum. And you’re not persisting for a reason, you’re not persisting for a purpose, you’re merely persisting because you don’t want to not persist at something.
And again, that extreme of non-revision is equally detrimental and equally harmful. If you change jobs and you move countries and two years in you hate it, and you still are unhappy and still nothing is going correct, maybe that’s a point to re-evaluating and coming home. And so it comes down to the question that you asked, which is how do you juggle and how do you know what the right balance of those two polar ends of the scale are? And I think it comes back to in the way that we kind of talked about it in the book, is knowing why you’re persisting, right. So when you’re experiencing a difficulty, a desirable difficulty or otherwise, why are you being gritty? What are you persisting in purpose of or in the quest for? And I think it comes back to that idea of, are you persisting for something that is sacred, that is important, that means something to you? Are you persisting in line with your values and your goals? And if you’re not and you just find yourself persisting because of a fear of non-persisting, well, then you may be in that state that you’re no longer being driven by the right motives and by the right motivations.
Brett McKay: Oh, so it all goes back to knowing thyself.
Neil Shortland: I think it really does, and I think the more that we talk about the book and the more that we hear from the readers that have been very kind to share their thoughts on it with us, that’s what I think it comes down to. One of the big parts, I think, when we wrote it and what people are reading from it is the value of knowing thyself. And it’s difficult because, I think especially if you’re young and you’re thinking about your values. You know, values change, knowing yourself. The personality may be slightly more rigid, but things that are sacred to you, that matter to you, that are really important to you, they change and it’s almost like working out. It’s something that you do need to consciously often think about. Think about what matters to you, reflect on it, update what is actually sacred and important to me?
And Lawrence and I, we had a long walk on the beach a few weeks ago where we talked about our values and our goals. And it’s interesting that I’ve kind of… As I’ve grown up, I’m experiencing sacred value shifts in real time. And you can’t make a good decision unless you know what the most important thing to you is, because the real risk here… I think that one of the risks is not making a decision, but the other risk is making a decision driven by a value that you think is the sacred one and finding out after you’ve made the decision that it really isn’t. And that’s not a state, I think, we’d wish on anyone and something that really this book is aimed at trying to help people avoid. So while I think the STAR model is critical because I think it really talks about what I think real-life, difficult decisions look like, we can’t take away from just the importance of knowing who you are and what really matters to you when you’re kind of looking at making these kind of fork-in-the-road, life-changing decisions.
Brett McKay: Well, Lawrence, Neil, it’s been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Neil Shortland: The book is currently available on amazon.co.uk and on Audible. And for any American listeners, I believe in about a few months it will be out for the stateside audience. And any of our work on kind of the operational side of things, so training with police, military, law enforcement, we have our Ground Truth website, which Lawrence can correct me if I get it wrong. It’s ground-truth.co.uk, but that’s where we kind of work with all of the practitioners on our decision-making trainings and our rapport trainings and any of that or our Twitter feed if you, I guess, wanna see our opinions on, well, current events.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Lawrence and Neil, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Neil Shortland: Thank you, Brett.
Lawrence Allison: Great to speak to you.
Brett McKay: My guests today were Lawrence Alison and Neil Shortland. They are the authors of the book, Decision Time. It’s available on amazon.com. Make sure to check out our short notes at aom.is/decisiontime where you find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of The AoM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android IOS and you could start enjoying ad free episodes of the AoM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us your review on our podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you’d think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.