Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Making decisions

Psychology is frustrating because it seems at once to offer no answers at all and at the same time to prove things which are obvious. But occasionally, it strikes at the heart of something.

Robert Cialdini's book, Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, describes an experiment whereby 17% of people agreed to have an enormous ugly billboard reading "Drive Carefully" erected in their front gardens. Two weeks earlier, a subgroup of residents had agreed to display a three-inch-square notice saying "Be A Safe Driver". Revealingly, 76% of those who agreed to the large billboard agreed to the smaller one.

The point is this is how most of us make decisions. Even big ones, like career choices. We drift into jobs often through chance, sometimes because it's what's expected of us or because it pays well or because we've done something similar before. But this small decision is likely then to shape a huge part of the rest of your life, because humans justify their decisions to themselves after the event. We seek consistency, above all.

As Oliver Burkeman says: Partly, this is a matter of keeping up appearances: if you've presented yourself as committed to road safety, you may fear, albeit subconsciously, giving a contradictory impression.

This is where career psychology can offer some insight.  We need to know ourselves better, and as objectively as possible, if we are to make sound decisions. Otherwise we risk falling into something, then justifiying our decisions for the rest of our lives.

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