Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Rush to Judgment

“Limited time offer!”

“You must act now!”

“Only 25 available at this price, get yours while they last!”

Unless you live cut off from modern radio, TV, and newspapers you have been bombarded by similar statements. Advertisers and sales people know that you are more likely to buy if you don’t take time to think before you act. They are paid to separate you from your money and they get good at it.

This pressure for a rush to judgment interferes with good decision-making. Customers grab the “bargain” only to decide later that they really don’t need it, or that it was the wrong style for them, or even to find that the store down the street is offering the same thing at an even lower price. They are out the money and may be stuck with an item they really don’t want or need. If the “bargain” involves a long-term contract from buying on credit, those customers will pay for months or years for a hasty decision.

Any time we are pressured to decide in a hurry, there is probably a reason. Most likely the salesperson knows that if we really think about it we will decide not to buy so he tries to keep us from thinking.

Politicians too can pressure us to “buy” their “bargains” without adequate consideration. The bills claimed to bail out the economy were rushed through congress in less time than the Obama family spent deciding what breed of dog to get as a White House pet. As I write this, both the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and the Obama health plan are being rushed through congress. The so-called cap and trade energy bill was already rushed through the house – with no time for representatives to read it. President Obama claims that the health plan and “cap and trade” are urgent, we must act now! Sound familiar? Others are claiming that the Sotomayor must be confirmed before the next session of the court. They do not explain why it is better to take a chance on her than for the court to operate one justice short.

We are now seeing the results of the rush to judgment on bailing out the economy – unemployment has continued to rise. Yet we are being pressured into more rush decisions on the health plan, on energy, and on Sotomayor’s confirmation. Should we perhaps be just a bit suspicious?

My own formula for dealing with such attempts to induce panic is:

First I ask myself if there is really any reason to hurry? Is my life, health, or financial well-being at risk if I take more time to decide? I find that there is almost never any good reason to hurry. Even if the “only 25 available at this price” get sold, it seldom does any real harm to me. If there is reason to decide quickly I do the best I can, using the same principles I would use if I had more time available.

I then try to take a reasonable amount of time to consider the decision with appropriate care, depending on the nature of the decision. I won’t spend much time deciding what to order at a restaurant, but for something like a major purchase or how to vote in an election I’ve developed my own 12-step process:

1. Keep the goal in mind.
2. Gather and analyze information.
3. List options and possible outcomes.
4. Determine outcome probabilities.
5. List possible consequences and benefits for each outcome.
6. Do cost-benefit analysis for those outcomes.
7. Look at changing the probabilities.
8. Examine legal and moral issues.
9. Listen to a devil's advocate (or be one yourself).
10. Decide if it is worth the risk.
11. Decide if I can tolerate a bad outcome.
12. Put it together and decide.

As a decision-making consultant I suggest those steps to clients. Just as AA’s 12-step program can help people overcome alcoholism, so these steps can help overcome a habit of making bad decisions.

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