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Q: I keep making bad decisions and screwing things up. Can you help me to make better decisions and have a more successful life?
A: It’s possible that you have made significant decisions hastily without considering more of the facts. Likely you made them while in an emotional state – positive or negative. Intense emotions colour our decision making.
As a cognitive-behavioural therapist, I use a rational approach. This does not mean an absence of emotional sensitivity but the inclusion of it.
Psychological research has found that people make more than 180 thinking errors. The problem? Most people have no awareness that an error is being made. If they were aware of the error, they would correct it. Left undetected, the error is like to lead to faulty decision making.
A psychological truism is that most of our decisions are made based on how we feel and not what is logical or rational. Intense negative emotions often lead to bad decisions and lead to bad outcomes. I’d bet every significantly bad decision you’ve made was made when you were upset, depressed, anxious, angry, feeling insecure or needy. Emotions tend to guide our decisions and can often lead us down a dangerous path. For decision making, this is why reason and logic reign supreme.
You do not want your child’s math teacher to deliver a lesson based on his or her feelings. Instead you want the lesson based on the logic of math. The same goes for geography, medicine and science. Logical or scientific thinking is simply a refinement (and a more accurate form) of everyday thinking, which is often unclear, vague, misleading and problematic.
It is best to think as clearly as possible and avoid being fooled by others or our own thinking. Good thinking is looking at all the relevant information, assessing pros and cons, and actively seeking out other possible explanations. When there is a consensus of facts or the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of one position, then that position is adopted.
Unless a person is trained to deliberately apply this approach to their thinking, feelings will likely get in the way. We tend to look at a limited number of facts, usually based on desires or expectations, and we look almost exclusively for confirming evidence and ignore disconfirming evidence.
This is called confirmation bias – looking to confirm what we believe and ignoring opposing information.
Many things in life are purely opinion, such as whether or not you like a movie or consider Hawaii beautiful or think that your daughter is the most exceptional child ever. To date, there are many things that we cannot prove or disprove, such as the existence of alien life on other planets. But, as with most things, good reasoning will move you in the likelihood of one direction or the other. When you truly don’t know, say so. It’s that simple. Don’t pretend to know something when there is no reliable valid information on the subject.
Hundreds of years ago the western world refused to accept the fact that the earth goes around the sun. Leaders at the time believed the earth was the centre of the universe, even after the evidence, logic and science were conclusively presented. This discounting of the facts is a good example of poor thinking based on limited personal experience, ignoring a consensus of expert analysis and concluding that others are wrong and they themselves are right.
The attitude is almost, “Let’s not confuse the issue with logic and facts.” Sadly, this has been a familiar refrain lately in the political sphere, especially with our neighbours to the south.
The average person needs to be trained to use rational, logical, skeptical thinking reflexively and persistently. Most people employ this method infrequently, instead opting for opinion based on feelings.
Emotions are the life-blood of our experience and are extremely important. Ideally, we want to make significant and important decisions using facts along with rational, logical thinking. We can use our emotions to feel whatever is appropriate about that decision. Purely emotional decisions are great when you want to decide what music CD you want to listen to, which ride in Disneyland you want to go on or which movie you want to see.
Important, possibly life-altering decisions should be made using a logical, rational approach that assesses all relevant information, including emotions. Emotions should not be the primary or only reason for making such a decision. If so, the chance of it being the right one is based on luck. Emotions don’t prove facts or that you’re correct. Emotions only prove that you feel.
Try to make important decisions based on all relevant information – including how your feel. Ask yourself, “What would I tell my best friend or daughter if they were in this identical situation?” In all likelihood, this will be good advice and it would be wise for you to follow it, independent of how you feel.