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I just don't know what to do with myself

Updated: May 5, 2021

Generally, I’m not too bad at making decisions at work. I’m not about to fall into the trap of claiming I make good decisions, merely that I am reasonably decisive. I intuitively whittle down a myriad of options to two or three and have little difficulty committing to one. If it turns out to be wrong, I tend not to dwell on it; I get on with looking for another way forward. However, take me away from the office and I’m hopelessly dithering.

Indian Restaurants are my nemesis. I can cope with a one-page menu. I didn’t get to be within striking distance of eighteen stone by being a fussy eater; I reckon one vegetarian and two or three omnivore options for each course, plus maybe a cheese platter, is plenty.

So, while I like a curry, I hate the encyclopaedic menu you are expected to navigate but I hate even more the fact that no-one else around me seems overwhelmed by the choice before them.

The obvious solution is to pick something I know I like. I actually quite like chicken tikka masala but ordering a dish that was invented in Glasgow would risk attracting the opprobrium of fellow diners smugly enjoying the authentic Indian experience conjured by Bangladeshi chefs in a converted pub, so that’s a no:no. I’m left trying to remember what it was I had the time before last. I don’t want what I had last time as it was dried out and didn’t really live up to the menu’s promise – I think it was probably the Methi Chicken (A distinctly Indian aromatic dish, chicken cooked in delicious, earthy medium spice, flavoured with fresh fenugreek(?) leaves.) but it could equally well have been Dhaba Chicken Curry (A popular roadside slightly hot, earthy dish of baby chicken thighs on the bone cooked in whole spices).

My anxiety is not reduced by the Mrs R factor. Among my wife’s many talents is an unerring ability to choose a better meal than me. I’ve tried choosing the same as her, but she insists we should try something different and selects an alternative for herself. This is ALWAYS better than her original choice. This means the time between ordering and the meal arriving, time that for a normal couple would be filled with gentle conversation, is for us dominated by me fretting over whether I have chosen well, in the knowledge that it is overwhelmingly likely I have not. When the meals arrive and as expected mine is disappointing I’ve long given up any attempt to hide my food envy and sit doing a Labrador impression until Mrs R gives in to the inevitable and offers to share. We tend not to go out much these days…

I can draw some reassurance from knowing that my discomfort is pretty universal – OK, perhaps my panic at the sight of an extensive menu is a tad extreme but we are all prone to the heuristics, or mental short-cuts, that sit at the heart of our decision-making processes. Ordering a dodgy curry is hardly going to change my life but using the same approach to manage my finances could.

Depending on your point of view, we have evolved to be mentally lazy or efficient decision-makers. Either way, we don’t like to work for an answer – in the jargon, we rail against any cognitive load. Given too many options and we quickly succumb to choice overload – if someone can present us with a ‘lazy’ option we’re likely to jump at the chance.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explained this by suggesting our brains have two ‘systems’, each competing for our attention. System 1 uses heuristics to give us easy instant responses; System 2 takes time to look at things properly. System 1 is noisy and excitable, it tends to crowd out the more sensible System 2. This wouldn’t matter if the heuristics System 1 trusts were reliable – that is, System 1 was efficient rather than lazy. Unfortunately, the mental shortcuts we come up with are frequently hopeless, leading us to make poor decisions.

We live in an increasingly frictionless world. Firms are elbowing their way to be the first in the queue to offer us a lazy option. Behind my desk sits a sad and growing pile of Amazon packages – testament to the power of one-click ordering; meanwhile, contactless payments mean you can wake up on Sunday morning with a headache, an empty bank account and no memory of spending any money. This is dangerous territory for System 1 and its eagerness to cut corners. If we want to help people make better decisions a good starting point is to introduce a bit more friction.

Behavioural economics is the quasi-science that tries to bring some understanding to the more irrational aspects of our decision making and it’s an area that the wonks at Chadwicks get very excited about, in particular, how we can use behavioural insights to help clients become happier and more content. We’ve spent the summer increasing our understanding of the role financial wellbeing plays in our overall mental health and happiness. This ties in with the greater focus generally on mental wellbeing in the workplace; a better appreciation of the gains for people, employers and society to be had from a less anxious workforce.

People worry about lots of things but the two big ones, often entangled, are money and relationships. Our search around the world revealed a lot of financial wellbeing services but they typically boiled down to helping over-indebted people find a loan with affordable payments. This is fine except it is focused on addressing the symptom (the debt) rather than the cause (the spending behaviours) and also assumes that the only people who lay awake at night worrying about money are the over-extended.

We’re working with the UEA School of Economics on our latest project, which melds behavioural coaching into our advice process. At its heart is a series of gentle nudges designed to encourage you to stop and think; to put the important but boring decisions ahead of trivial but exciting ones; to counter the behavioural tricks foisted on us by firms and agencies. It’s unlikely to stop you having that sickening feeling as you open your wardrobe door to be reminded of that unwise impulse buy but hopefully it will happen less often.

Of course, heuristics don’t have to lead to worse outcomes. Mrs R suggested a Chinese take-away for supper. By the time you’d factored in all the variations the online menu has more than a hundred options; for a man with my behavioural frailties this was a non-starter.

No, let’s go to the pub.

There, I said I was decisive.

Richard Ross

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