How to make a sound decision: from a lifetime's experience
Although I am confident about the value of the following decision making process, how others use it must be their own responsibility.
I learnt the strategy many years ago, and it has stood me well ever since. Of all the advice and suggestions that a lifetime's experience has taught me, if I could only pass on just one for decision-making, it would be this. It is about choosing the most appropriate decision from a number of alternatives.
Before using the strategy, you must of course have thought through and identified the various alternatives and their associated pros, cons and uncertainties.
Maximising anticipated benefit when making a decision
First of all, let's get out of the way what is a poor but very common way of making a decision - i.e. choosing the alternative that is most likely to produce a positive outcome provided that nothing untoward happens.
The problem with this approach is that things all too often do go seriously wrong because of unforeseen events and bad luck. These may make a mockery of what was expected to be a good outcome, and much may be lost as a result. In a worst-case scenario, it can lead to ruin - and newspapers are not short of examples. Of course there are exceptions, but they are not common.
So making a decision on the basis of 'maximising anticipated benefit' is not a reliable decision-making strategy.
A better way of making a decision - minimising regret
The strategy for decision-making that has served me so well over the years does not rely on maximising anticipated benefit, but on minimising something else. That something else is 'regret'. One of the worst things to live with is regret. Think about it. How many times have you wished that you could go back in time to change something because you wish that you had behaved differently? Kept your temper? Visited an elderly relative? Donated to a good cause? The list is probably almost endless.
The strategy is minimising regret. In other words, working out what losses could occur after making each of the various alternative decisions and then choosing the decision which would produce the most readily borne losses if things were to go wrong. A loss could be in terms of time, money, health, guilt, morality, etc. All these can be summarised in terms of what would be regretted afterwards if things were to go wrong. The strategy is known as 'minimising regret' or just 'least regret'.
Types of regret
Different people facing identical alternatives may come to different yet equally valid decisions when using the least regret strategy because what is least regret for one of them is not what is least regret for another. Different people in different circumstances can more easily bear different types of regret, as the following examples show.
So if you use the strategy, it is up to you to decide on what your greatest regret or regrets could be out of the various possibilities of things going wrong. Only then can you make the decision which minimises those regrets. The following examples should help.
Example: Least regret in financial decision-making
Suppose for example that a woman wondered about buying a luxury item, costing, say, £500 and that she was not particularly well-off and really needed that £500 for feeding her children. If she went ahead and bought the item her later regret would either be that she could no longer feed her children. If she did not buy the item, her later regret would be that she had missed out on the item. Which regret would be the worst to bear in the long run? For most of us, the least regret strategy would suggest that she should not go ahead with buying the luxury item.
However if she was so well-off that she could afford to lose the £500 if the luxury item turned out to be unsatisfactory and that she would still be able to afford another £500 to feed her children, the least regret strategy would suggest that she should go ahead with the purchase rather than miss out on something she wanted.
Example: Least regret in time-management decision-making
Suppose for example that a man was asked to contribute an exhibit for an exhibition and was led to believe that it would be a centrepiece there. This made him want to visit the exhibition to see his exhibit in place. However the exhibition was several hours journey away, so he pondered whether the visit would it be worth the outlay of time. He realised that if he did not go, he would always regret it by wondering what he had missed. So, using the least regret strategy, he decided to make the journey. It turned out that his exhibit was not a centrepiece and that the exhibition was such a disappointment that he had completely wasted an entire day. Yet he was nevertheless pleased with his decision to go because, being retired, a wasted day was not really much of a regret for him and, having given up the time, he no longer had to live with the regret of wondering how his exhibit would have looked.
If he had still been in employment, however, a possible wasted day might have been his major regret, so his best decision would have been not to go. He then might have made another decision like asking for a photograph.
Example: Least regret in ethical decision-making
Suppose for example that a woman had to decide whether or not to visit an elderly relative. She was busy at the time and she didn't really want to go anyway, although she knew that the visit would mean a lot to the relative. Using the least regret strategy her decision was to visit because she knew that the guilt of not going would be the worse of the options. So guilt was what she had to minimise. Another person might of course have decided differently in order to minimise a different regret that took priority.
As another example, suppose someone is repeatedly asked to help out at a local event. If her greatest regret would be that she had ducked out of the opportunity to help, she would minimise this regret by agreeing to assist. If on the other hand her greatest regret would be her lack of assertiveness in declining, she should decide to refuse.
Example: Least regret or no regret in decision-making
It is important to realise that the least regret decision-making strategy is one of least regret, not no regret. Regret cannot always be completely eliminated. A common example is the decision of whether to place a feeble elderly relative in a home or let her continue unable to manage in her own home. Then if the latter, how. There are disadvantages to all the alternatives. In such circumstances people can waste a lot of time looking for the right decision when it would be preferable to look for the least bad one.
Example: Least regret in criminal decision-making
Consider the example of the decision of whether or not to do something criminal. If things were to go wrong and the crime was discovered, some of the likely regrets could be personal humiliation, embarrassment to the family, a fine, a prison sentence and of course the lack of the proceeds from the crime. Each of these regrets would have different priorities for different people. A hardened criminal might have no fear of another term in prison with his mates and would find no humiliation in it. His greatest regret if his crime were discovered would be missing out on the chances of ill-gotten gains. So, using the least regret strategy, his decision would be to go ahead with the crime. Most of us, however, would regard the regret of humiliation and guilt as too difficult to bear, so to minimise these, we would decide to stay within the law.
The origins of the least regret decision-making strategy
It is time to explain where the Least Regret strategy came from. It was in a professional journal on Game Theory and concerned making decisions about the best strategies for making moves in a game. It immediately made a lot of sense to me, so I tried it for my own more general decision-making, and, as I have said, it has served me well.
In fact 'least regret' has become a catchphrase in our family. If one of us says that they are going to do something, they only have to add "least regret" and everyone else knows what they mean.
Limitations of the strategy
For most practical purposes, the minimising regret strategy is helpful and applicable. The exception is when the decision-maker is excessively timid with no good reason for being so. Should a child be kept back from school, for example, because he or she might be hit by a bus or kidnapped on the way? Or should someone needing surgery decline it because he or she might die on the operating table? These things might happen, and if they did, the regret would be overwhelming - but it is extremely unlikely, and most of us would agree that the child should not be kept back from school and that the surgery should go ahead. If you are concerned about whether you are being unnecessarily fearful about a decision, you should discuss your fears with knowledgeable people before making up your mind.