The idea of “decision making” may seem remarkably broad, since much of life can be described as decision-making. But some decisions are more important than others, and for these major calls, there is actually a scientific method for making the best choice. (And expanding your thinking beyond what you thought your choices were at first.)
The College of New Jersey will host a one-day course on decision making on Wednesday, January 9, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Registration costs $425. For more information, visit goo.gl/wwghiB. The workshop will teach students how to apply the WRAP process, a method developed by Chip and Dan Heath, who wrote the 2016 book “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.”
Chip Heath, a Texas A&M alumnus with a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford, now teaches business strategy and organizations at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Dan Heath has a BA from the University of Texas and an MBA from Harvard Business School. In 1997 he co-founded Thinkwell, a publishing company that creates a line of radically reinvented college textbooks. Dan Heath is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which advances social entrepreneurism. The brothers’ latest book, “The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact,” was published in 2017.
In “Decisive,” the Heath brothers explain the WRAP process, which begins with Widening your options, then Reality-testing your assumptions, Attaining distance, and finally Preparing to be wrong. In the excerpt below, the Heaths show how their four-step WRAP process can lead to sound decision-making:
In the fall of 1772 a man named Joseph Priestley was struggling with a career decision, and the way he handled the decision points us toward a solution. Priestley, a brilliant man with an astonishing variety of talents, did not lack for career options. He was employed as a minister for a Dissenting church in Leeds, England. (“Dissenting” meant that it was not affiliated with the Church of England, the state-sanctioned religion.) But he was a man with many hobbies, all of which seemed to take on historical significance. As an advocate for religious tolerance, he helped to found the Unitarian Church in England. As a philosopher, he wrote works on metaphysics that were cited as important influences by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham.
An accomplished scientist, Priestley is credited with the discovery of 10 gases, including ammonia and carbon monoxide. He is best known for discovering the most important gas of them all: oxygen.
. . . Priestley was a theologian, a chemist, an educator, a political theorist, a husband, and a father. He published more than 150 works, ranging from a history of electricity to a seminal work on English grammar. He even invented soda water, so every time you enjoy your Diet Coke, you can thank Priestley.
In short, Priestley’s career was a bit like an 18th-century version of Forrest Gump, if Gump were a genius. He intersected with countless movements of historical and scientific significance. But in the fall of 1772, he had a much more prosaic problem on his hands: money. Priestley, like any father, worried about the financial security of his growing family. His salary as a minister — 100 pounds a year — was not sufficient to build substantial savings for his children, who eventually numbered eight. So he started looking for other options, and some colleagues connected him with the Earl of Shelburne, a science buff and a supporter of Dissenting religious groups in England’s House of Lords.
Shelburne was recently widowed and looking for intellectual companionship and help in training his children. Lord Shelburne offered Priestley a job as a tutor and an adviser. For a salary of 250 pounds a year, Priestley would supervise the education of Lord Shelburne’s children and counsel him on political and governmental matters. Priestley was impressed by the offer — particularly the money, of course — but was also cautious about what he would be signing on for. Seeking advice, he wrote to several colleagues he respected, including a wise and resourceful man he had met while writing the history of electricity: Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin replied with moral algebra, suggesting that Priestley use the process of pros and cons to guide his decision.
Thanks to the record provided by Priestley’s letters to friends, it’s possible to imagine how Priestley would have used the moral-algebra process.
The pros: good money; better security for his family. The cons were more plentiful. The job might require a move to London, which bothered Priestley, who described himself as “so happy at home” that he hated to contemplate being apart from his family. He worried, too, about the relationship with Shelburne. Would it feel like master and servant? And even if it started off fine, what would happen if Shelburne grew tired of him?
Finally, Priestley worried that the commitments would distract him from more important work. Would he end up spending his days teaching multiplication to kids instead of blazing new intellectual paths in religion and science?
From the perspective of the pros-and-cons list, accepting the offer looks like a pretty bad decision.
There’s basically one big pro — money — stacked up against an array of serious cons. Fortunately, though, Priestley largely ignored Franklin’s advice and found ways to circumvent the four villains of decision making.
First, he rejected the narrow frame:
Should I take this offer or not? Instead, he started pushing for new and better options. He considered alternative ways to bring in more income, such as speaking tours to lecture on his scientific work. In the spirit of “AND not OR” he negotiated for a better deal with Shelburne, at a time when people rarely questioned the nobility. Priestley ensured that a tutor, rather than he, would handle the education of Shelburne’s kids, and he arranged to spend most of his time in the country with his family, making trips to London only when Shelburne really needed him.
Second, he dodged the confirmation bias. Early in the process, Priestley received a strong letter from a friend who argued vehemently against Shelburne’s offer, insisting that it would humiliate Priestley and leave him dependent on a nobleman’s charity. Priestley took the objection quite seriously, and at one point he reported that he was leaning against the offer.
But rather than stewing over his internal pros-and-cons list, he went out and collected more data. Specifically, he sought the advice of people who knew Shelburne, and the consensus was clear: “Those who are acquainted with Lord Shelburne encourage me to accept his proposal; but most of those who know the world in general, but not Lord Shelburne in particular, dissuade me from it.” In other words, the people who knew the lord best were the most positive about the offer. Based on these converging assessments, Priestley began to consider the offer more seriously.
Third, Priestley got some distance from his short-term emotions. He sought advice from friends as well as more neutral colleagues such as Franklin. He didn’t allow himself to be distracted by visceral feelings: the quick flush of being offered a 150 percent raise or the social shame of being thought “dependent” by a friend. He made his decision based on the two factors he cared most about in the long term: his family’s welfare and his scholarly independence.
Finally, he avoided overconfidence. He expected the relationship to fare well, but he knew that he might be wrong. He worried, in particular, about leaving his family exposed financially if Shelburne had a sudden change of heart about the arrangement. So he negotiated a sort of insurance policy: Shelburne agreed to pay him 150 pounds a year for life, even if their relationship was terminated.
In the end, Priestley accepted the offer, and he worked for Lord Shelburne for about seven years. It would be one of the most prolific periods of his career, the period of his most important philosophical work and his discovery of oxygen.
Shelburne and Priestley eventually parted ways. The reasons aren’t clear, but Priestley said they separated “amicably,” and Shelburne honored his agreement to provide 150 pounds a year to the newly independent Priestley.
We believe Priestley made a good decision to work with Shelburne, though it’s impossible to say for certain. After all, it’s possible that spending time with Shelburne distracted him just enough to stop him from making yet another world-historical contribution (cinnamon rolls? The Electric Slide?). But what we do know is that there’s a lot to admire about the process he used to make the decision, because he demonstrates that it’s possible to overcome the four villains of decision making.
. . . We can’t deactivate our biases, but these people show us that we can counteract them with the right discipline.
The nature of each villain suggests a strategy for defeating it:
- You encounter a choice. But narrow framing makes you miss options. So … Widen Your Options. How can you expand your set of choices?
- You analyze your options. But the confirmation bias leads you to gather self-serving info. So … Reality-Test Your Assumptions.
How can you get outside your head and collect information that you can trust? We’ll learn how to ask craftier questions, how to turn a contentious meeting into a productive one in 30 seconds, and what kind of expert advice should make you suspicious.
- You make a choice. But short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong one. So … Attain Distance Before Deciding.
- Then you live with it. But you’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold. So … Prepare to Be Wrong.