Ep 226: Making Better Decisions

Decision-making expert Eric J Johnson, author of The Elements of Choice, joins us to discuss how our choices are often influenced by external forces without our knowledge. He also describes different kinds of decision-making and explains how memory affects our choices.

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Full show notes

We make thousands of choices every day–what to eat, what to wear, which email to send first, even how much creamer to put in our coffee. It might seem like we’re making these choices of our own accord, but we often don't realize how many forces are influencing each and every choice we make. Everything from corporate marketing to peer influence can shape our decisions in profound and surprising ways!

This is especially true for teenagers, who are making some early and important decisions like where to go to college or what career to commit to. If we want teens to make smart choices, we’ll have to teach them to spot all the ways their decisions are being influenced by those around them.

To help us understand how external forces affect our decision-making process, we’re talking to Eric J. Johnson, author of The Elements of Choice: Why the Way We Decide Matters. Eric is a Professor of Business and Director of the Center of Decision Studies at Columbia Business School. He’s also the President of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and The Society for Neuroeconomics at Columbia! An expert on the science of decision-making, Eric is here to help us understand the nuanced influences that affect every choice we make.

In our interview, we’re discussing the different kinds of decision-making and their advantages. We also break down the way external factors influence our choices, and the significance of memory in our decision-making.

Why do we each make unique choices, and what are the consequences? These are just a few of the questions Eric asks in his research as he attempts to learn more about the decision-making process. In our interview, he lays out two common types of analysis: integrative and comparative.

Integrative decision-makers take in the whole picture, ingesting and evaluating all the details and analyzing every bit of information. In contrast, comparative thinkers tend to look at the most essential component of each choice, and make a decision based on that comparison. 

To help us understand, Eric describes an experiment in which participants were offered forty dollars immediately or fifty dollars if they could wait a while. Integrative thinkers might measure the availability of the forty dollars over the time spent waiting for the extra ten, and choose to walk away with forty. Comparative thinkers may simply see the dollar amounts and pick the higher one, he says, waiting for the fifty.

How does this play out for teenagers? Eric explains that these are common methods of decision-making when it comes to choosing a college. Some teens might use integrative reasoning to evaluate the whole experience–student body size, campus environment, quality of facilities–while comparative thinkers might just compare the stats of the school’s post-grad employment rates or cost of attendance. If you want your teen to think one way or the other, it might be best to push them in the direction of integrative or comparative thinking.

These choices aren't made in a vacuum, however, and there are plenty of influences on our decisions. Eric and I are breaking down the many ways our choices are manipulated, often without our own knowledge.

Who Controls Our Choices?

Although we might not realize it, we’re often swayed in our decision-making by those who are presenting us with choices. Oftentimes, they make certain choices easier or more straightforward than others, leading us to choose that option to save time and energy. Eric uses the example of an autofilled box on an online form. If the box is already checked, we often don’t even bother to read what we’re agreeing to. The same goes for things like medical forms or advertisements.

For teens looking to choose a college, there are quite a few forces influencing their decision. Eric and I talk at length about how parents, peers, pop culture and colleges themselves all exert influence over how kids pick which school to attend. If kids simply hear about certain colleges more often, they’re likely to apply to those schools…even if they aren’t really the best option for your teens' particular life plans. This is especially true for students who come from lower income backgrounds, and simply aren’t encouraged to explore pricier or high-ranking schools quite so often.

Additionally, about 50% of U.S. students also have to pick a high school, especially in New York City, Eric explains. In NYC, students are forced to pick from thousands of schools within the city to find the right fit. Eric explains how this demonstrates a common conundrum in decision-making. To make the right choice, the chooser can’t be overwhelmed with too many options, but they need enough options to make sure they pick something that’s the right fit. This means the pool of choices needs to be manageably small–but not too small! In the episode, Eric explains how this issue is solved for New York City High Scholers and beyond in the episode.

There are a few other things that affect our decisions–including memory. Eric explains all the ways memory changes the way we make choices.

Why Memory Matters

Eric illustrates the significance of memory in our decision-making by telling a story about Ben Franklin. When Ben was approached by a friend and asked how to make a decision, Ben advised his friend to weigh the pros and the cons of each choice–but to do so over a day or two instead of in a single moment. 

If we write a list in ten minutes, our brains are likely suppressing one choice in favor of the other. If  we give our brain time to remember all the details, we can make a better choice…instead of one based on what we remember at the current moment. In the episode, Eric and I talk about how teens can practice this method in their daily lives.

You might notice the phenomenon of memory play out when you’re reading a list of options on a menu or guide. Whichever option is first typically takes root in your memory, with the others fading into obscurity in your mind as they go on. This is commonly seen in elections, Eric explains, where whomenever is first on the ballot typically wins. 

The order of options affects our choices in other ways as well. If a menu is listed by price, we take notice of the prices and make our decision that way. If something like wine is instead listed by quality, we might choose quality over costliness. 

In the end, our choices are manipulated by plenty of different forces. But by educating ourselves and our families on the science of decision-making, we can learn to gain control over our decisions and make the choices that are truly best for us.

In the Episode…

Chatting with Eric was both fun and enlightening! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • How we can encourage teens to invest
  • Why informing kids about scholarships is essential
  • How we can help teens spend their money wisely
  • Why parents should change the way they present choices to kids
Thanks for listening! If you want to find more from Eric, head over to theelementsofchoice.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Eric J. Johnson
Eric J. Johnson
Doing decision research to help everyone make better choicesThe Elements of Choice Available now. https://t.co/FVQ40ni3oq. Toots: @[email protected]
Ep 226: Making Better Decisions
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