People 101: Two Ways Of Thinking About Decisions

October 25, 2019


People make decisions hundreds or even thousands of times each day but rarely reflect on what a decision is. This failure comes at a price, a price we pay in a wide variety of ways. So here are two features of a decision that are worth mulling over each day as we brush our teeth or amble around the office. Think of it as a modest first step, a thing we can all do in those empty moments, to push our lives, even civilization, in a better trajectory. Given our current state of climate emergency and the urgent need to find some way out of this mess, you might even say that it would be reckless of us not to take this first step.

One. A decision is a product. That is, there is a process and at the end of that process is a decision. Think of this product as moving along a conveyor belt in a factory. There are a number of stations along the way and at every station what is there is modified, prodded or tinkered with in some way. The process can be lousy or a great, and its output, the decision, can be lousy or great too. Of course, it’s up to us to know the difference and, though this is not easy, we pay a cost for being wrong about which one it is (believing, for instance, it is a great product when in fact it’s a lousy one). Think about a developer choosing to build a conventional multifamily building merely because it’s familiar. Familiarity induces a type of tunnel vision and causes him, without his knowing it, to ignore the other options available to him, even if one of those options is better for him.

Two. A decision is a prediction. When I go to a restaurant I order one thing over another because I predict it will make me happier. I glimpse into the future and guess how things will turn out. So we are constantly, endlessly making predictions about the future. Some turn out to be right, some wrong. There is nothing we can do to make these predictions correct at all times but there are a number of things we can do to greatly improve the odds that our predictions are correct. Better predictions means better decisions. Think about a home buyer who focuses disproportionately on the kitchen design. She does so because she thinks a certain kitchen will make her happy. Research shows that, in fact, the kitchen will not make her happy—or that it will do so for only about six months or so—and so she would’ve been better off, in terms of predicting what will improve her future happiness, focusing on other features of the house, such as its porousness (or lack of) to noise.

Routinely reminding ourselves that a decision is the product of a process makes it easier for us to understand that parts of that process (some of which is beyond conscious awareness) are less than perfect—but also that we can take deliberate steps to improve the process. Routinely reminding ourselves that a decision is a prediction will make it more likely that we write some of these predictions down (“The market isn’t ready for passive house” or “This kitchen will make me happy” or “I’m better off building a conventional multifamily building”) and look at them closely to see if they hold up under closer scrutiny.

About People 101: This is the first installment in a series—or so I’m hoping—of occasional and very short entries that talks about how people make decisions. The aim will be to give us—those of us who are working every day to drive down emissions, change the building industry, and be able to look ourselves in the mirror without wincing—perspectives on decision making that will be helpful to architects, lenders, builders, renters and others. Boiling it down, human beings are the obstacle and the opportunity. So it can only help us to think about how their choices are made and what we can do to get them to make better ones.


James Geppner
James Geppner
James Geppner Executive Director, Following his years in Project Finance, where he evaluated companies and studied markets,…

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