Systemic Decision Making

Vinita Gupta-

Vinita Gupta

Vinita Gupta is a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur and was the first Indian-American woman to take her company public. Since retiring, she has propelled herself through her journalism, mentoring women entrepreneurs and playing competitive bridge at the highest levels. She has won several National titles in bridge.

“I’ve had choices, Since the day that I was born. There were voices, That told me right from wrong” by George Jones

We make all kinds of small and large decisions every day.  Decision-making is a learned skill that can be improved with deliberate observations, personalized processes, and then training ourselves to use them effectively.

The book, The Art of Critical Decision Making by Michael Roberto, reveals how bad choices are usually the result of poor decision-making.

For me, it still is a struggle.

Serving on several boards, it is often hard for me to recall what was discussed in the last meeting and what my thoughts were at the time.  I usually prepare prior to the board meetings, and scribble notes during the session.  But then I realized, if I do not capture the essence, much gets lost.  I now spend 30 minutes after each meeting summarizing what I had heard, and if I still had any questions left.  This is an example of making the decision to contribute more effectively as a board member.

The other example which requires decision-making on steroids is the game of bridge.  I have been playing competitive bridge for 15 years now.  Bridge tests all the flaws of the mind, like biases, forgetfulness, and preoccupation of the mind.  When I am in a bridge tournament, the quantity of decisions quickly tires the brain and it is not easy to know why I made even obvious mistakes.  I need to sort my mistakes into different buckets, devise different processes for each bucket and practice them over and over until they stick.

Simple decisions require us to make judgments based on instincts.  Our instincts are based on our prior experiences.  For more complex ones, like whether or not to accept a job offer, when to change jobs, or when to retire, we try to predict how those decisions will impact our future.

When we find that we have made a poor decision, we often overanalyze what we did wrong, instead of looking for a pattern across our mistakes and learning to correct the pattern, which is far more useful — but not easy.

A new and useful body of social science literature explores how to make better decisions.  The social science research is complemented by the work of neuroscientists who study the brain and look for ways to correct the flaws in cognitive function.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, and psychologist Amos Tversky identified more than 180 cognitive biases that interfere with how we process data, think critically, and perceive reality.  When bias clouds our minds, we cannot make accurate judgments.  Kahneman does not offer many remedies; he admits that even he cannot overcome his own biases.

In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology at Arizona State University, discusses the irrational tendencies that can influence us to go wrong.  For example, the tendency to win is much stronger making us prone to irrational low-probability bets like buying lottery tickets.  Understanding some of these tendencies is the first step to curtailing them.

The billionaire investor Charlie Munger is an admirer of Cialdini’s work.  Munger sent Cialdini some Berkshire Class A stocks certificates with a note saying, “Warren [Buffet] and I have read your books, we’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars.  This is our way of saying thanks.”

The book Super Forecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Phil Tetlock, professor of psychology and political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and journalist Dan Gardner offers practical and valuable insights into decision-making.

In 2011, the government recruited Tetlock and several thousand ordinary people to forecast the likelihood of several global events, such as, if the price of crude oil would exceed $40.30 per barrel in the next 60 days.

There were several rounds of questioning; each round consisted of more than 100 questions.  After each round, the top 40 “superforecasters” were identified and included in the next round, and more amateur forecasters were brought in.  This experiment went on for four years.  The forecasters were asked to enter their initial ‘probability number’ of the event happening in the given time frame, and to keep updating it up or down as many times as they chose; until that round was over.  Then the forecasters were required to give their final answer “yes” or “no”.

The results were astounding.  The amateur superforecasters consistently predicted better than the experts in the field by a big margin.

Tetlock concluded that superforecasters:

  • were not merely lucky but more systematic in making their predictions.  They updated their probability number more frequently, based on new generally available information.
  • examined their answers from multiple angles, and gathered perspectives from different types of sources, reducing “excessive reliance on [their own] intuitions” — a bias — per Kahneman.

Tetlock also concluded that a systematic approach was part of superforecasters’ repertoire.

These findings are both useful and encouraging as they can be cultivated by most.

My successes in life have been about making a few good decisions and learning from many bad ones.  My goal is to become a better decision-maker, not necessarily the best; that’s too vague.  Getting better can be measured and felt, and therefore improved.  Getting better year after year has a cumulative effect, called ‘compounding’ by investor Charlie Munger.   And success is only the byproduct of better decisions.