3 Decision Making Alternatives to a Pros/Cons List

These underutilized processes can help you find a balance between rationality and emotion.

Our lives are dotted with an endless list of decisions: from the simple (which shirt to wear, what to have for breakfast) to the more complex (should you accept a new job offer? Is it time to move to a new apartment?).

The ol’ pros/cons list works for some (hey, it’s a standard for a reason). But there are some underutilized–and well-researched, tested and approved–decision making models that you might want to consider as well. In fact, some models may work better for certain scenarios than others.

Maybe you’re trying to decide between two job offers, how you should move forward with a project, or if you should remain in a relationship.Whatever the decision at hand, our goal is to walk away with a choice we feel good about, one that’s ultimately found the appropriate balance between rationality and emotion. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, PhD, argues that we cannot make a decision without the presence of emotion, and that a lack of emotion can actually make our decisions even more difficult. His theory claims that the amygdala (the seat of our most primitive emotions) and the orbitofrontal cortex (the brain region most closely linked to decision-making) are vital to the neural circuit responsible for judgment and decision-making.

“Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it,” he wrote in his book Descarte’s Error. In other words: without deeply rooted emotions, or feelings in general, we lack motivation and find it difficult to find meaning in the end result.

That being said, we all know how too much emotion can muddy the process, making the chance of arriving at a rational decision slim to none. In one study, neuroscientists even found that our brains interpret decisions which take a longer amount of time as less confident ones.

So while you shouldn’t discount your emotions (and our gut instinct deserves some credit, too), utilizing a structured decision-making model can provide you with a framework to guide those emotions to a rational decision (in a reasonable amount of time). Here are a few models to consider the next time a dilemma arises:

The Rational Model

This common decision making model walks you through four steps:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Generate alternative solutions.
  3. Select a solution
  4. Implement said solution.

As you can see, the above isn’t an ideal decision-making model if you’re stuck between several choices. Instead, it works best in situations where you may be feeling emotional or overwhelmed, but cannot pinpoint the exact cause of your frustration. Say, for example, you’re feeling less than inspired at work or having a conflict wth a friend. The rational model will help you isolate the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and implement a change.


SWOT Analysis

SWOT is an acronym that stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. To create this chart, draw a box with four sections in it, then begin making lists in each section. You should create a SWOT analysis for each option you have. This kind of chart is ideal for making a decision between options that may seem very similar to each other at first glance. For example, two different job offers or three different grad schools. It’s also ideal if you want to get a more well-rounded view of something, some place, or someone. Sometimes it’s easier to move forward in a decision once you’ve stepped back and looked at the bigger picture.

Katrine Thielke via Flickr
Katrine Thielke via Flickr

Decision Making Tree

This type of decision-making model is a “predictive” flowchart that allows you to think your decision through all the way to the end. It essentially makes you think about the overall picture, versus deciding something on a whim without having done the appropriate research. Decision making trees are commonly used in the business world, especially when crunching numbers or determining the appropriate strategy for a new venture.

Though commonly reserved for the aforementioned, you can also create this kind of chart for other situations. For example: when trying to figure out a game plan for vacation when the weather’s unpredictable (so you’d create a branch for a rainy day and another for a sunny day), or when trying to decide if you should say yes or no to something (you’d create a branch for yes, and another for no). Though the future isn’t 100 percent predictable, projecting the effect it will have on the future may help you feel more secure with your decision.