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One Small Thing

The 1 mistake we all make when it comes to serious decisions

When you’re making a big decision, you may slow down and try to carefully reason through your options —believing that logic, rather than emotion, will guide you towards the right path.

But even the most careful among us cannot avoid a major cognitive trap, one that Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the “focusing illusion.

Huh? “It’s a very robustly studied phenomenon,” Katherine Milkman, an associate professor at The Wharton School of Business, told TODAY. “It can lead to an enormous number of traps.”

It works like this: When we think about a decision like choosing to live in either Ohio or California, we focus too narrowly on the distinct differences between these two places, Kahneman explained. We compare things like weather and believe that people in California must be happier than people in Ohio, when actually, climate only plays a very minor role in happiness.

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Does 'sleeping on it' really help you make better decisions?

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Does 'sleeping on it' really help you make better decisions?

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When it comes to making major life decisions, this single-minded focus makes us forget all the other factors that come into play, Milkman said. In the Ohio versus California example, we may forget that other things besides climate are even more important to our happiness, such as social connections, family, job security and so much more, Milkman explained.

But you don’t have to fall prey to this trap. When choosing between two options, there a few tricks you can use to avoid the focusing illusion.

1. Get another opinion.

First, Milkman said, try to assign someone the role of devil’s advocate, or bring in an outside perspective to help you think differently. And really listen to that other person's opinion.

2. Next, try looking at data.

"If you use data to make a prediction, data doesn’t suffer from a focusing illusion,” Milkman explained. “Only humans suffer from a focusing illusion.”

For instance, you could look at studies that show that actually, people in California are not happier than people in Ohio, so moving to California won’t automatically bump up your happiness rating.

3. Be aware of the possible bias.

“It has huge implications in all parts of our lives when we zoom in on one thing,” Milkman said. Try broadening your perspective instead, and you may just find yourself making better decisions.

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