No one was born with a rational mind.
Right from birth, different factors beyond our control, both genetic and environmental, have predisposed us to things and people that have triggered some nasty part of our nature.
We’ve all made decisions that we regretted a few minutes later. Some have hired the wrong employee, chosen the wrong career, or even married the wrong person.
We are inherently biased creatures, and as such applying rationality in decision-making is a skill that is learned.
It starts with cultivating self-awareness and emotional intelligence because most of the wrong decisions we make in life are emotion-based.
That said, here are 9 ways you can learn to use rationality when making important decisions.
1. Never make decisions in periods of intense emotion
If you’ve ever made any important decision in life, then you’ll understand that periods of important choices are periods of intense emotion.
Defining choices like who to marry, which job to take or leave, which college to go to, whom to date or break up with, etc., are usually difficult to make because they trigger emotional reactions in us.
Sadly, most people end up making defining decisions like these even when they are still blinded by their emotions.
Perhaps our model for this will be the 463 BC Athenian politician, Pericles.
The interesting thing about Pericles (which made him stand out as a leader) was his rationality.
Whenever there is a heated argument over policies and important decisions which often involved war strategies, Pericles avoided making decisions immediately.
Instead, he would withdraw himself to his house, sometimes for days, calming himself down and separating emotion from reasoning. This way, he was able to come up with ideas that left people in awe.
If you want to be more rational, avoid making decisions during periods of intense emotion. It will give you time to see things more clearly.
2. Accept your tendency towards bias
One of the major hindrances to making rational decisions is our inherently biased nature.
We all have ways of looking at life that we’ve grown to be comfortable with. And this frame of evaluation diffuses into all of our ideas and consequently our decisions.
We want certainty. And as such, when we have a complex situation at hand, we are quick to explain it in ways that fit into our present beliefs.
Though to a large extent, we are helpless in the face of our biases, there’s a solution that has proven helpful over time.
According to Clara Wilkins, a social psychologist who did a study on how bias manifests in people, the first step to make less biased decisions is to be aware and accepting of the fact that you are biased.
Accept that even your most closely held ideas and beliefs might be wrong.
Learn to question your most natural impulses. Ask yourself why you feel certain kinds of people or groups of people are bad. Or why you are drawn to certain people.
Consider this a form of self-awareness exercise where you’ll carefully explore your psyche.
3. Keep your ego in check
As Richard Feynman once said, “You are the easiest person to fool.”
Ego clouds our thinking and makes us exaggerate our abilities. In his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday wrote exhaustively about people who have made all sorts of irrational decisions because they were blinded by ego.
Ego makes you unable to see things as they are. It deceives you into believing there’s something special about you.
We’ve all come across bosses who are unable to listen to or take the advice of their subordinates if they feel it goes against their own ideas even though the advice might be helpful.
Those who are unable to take constructive criticisms soon fall in a ditch. Ego tells you,
“You have the special touch.”
“No one can do this better than you,”
“You can’t fail.”
This way of looking at yourself, however, will only make you take irrational choices.
If you want to apply rationality when making decisions, learn to be aware of the effect the ego can have on your thinking.
4. Question your intense emotions
In his book Beyond Order, Jordan Peterson wrote,
“A bad mood signifies something. A state of anxiety or sadness signifies something, and usually not something that will please you to discover.”
Every mood you’re in is a form of message that your subconscious or your body is passing to you. You must learn to listen.
Robert Greene also recommended questioning your emotions in the chapter, “The Law of Rationality” in his book The Laws of Human Nature.
Robert recommends that whenever you find yourself under intense emotion like sudden anxiety, anger, envy, fear, excitement, etc., that is not proportional to the situation at hand, question what you feel.
Ask yourself, “Why do I feel this way?” If you have an abnormally high emotional reaction to something, it likely means more than you think. As Carl Jung once put it, “Repressed emotions never die.”
Hence, the only way to understand how to control the strong wheels of emotion on you and consequently be more rational is to understand them.
If you understand them, they won’t be able to control you anymore.
5. Broaden your perspective
A narrow view of life leads to irrational choices.
To make well-informed decisions, you must learn to see life from different points of view. And there is no better way to develop this skill than to read books.
The most remarkable thing about reading is that it helps us make more sense of our experiences. When you read, you connect the dots.
For every problem you are going through, someone else has gone through it and written a book concerning it.
With novels, you can get into the mind of some else and feel their thought process, making you see life through their eyes.
Understand that the extent of rationality you exhibit in your decision-making often depends on how informed you are. If your thinking is too linear, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to make rational choices.
Read books. Know more. The broader your horizon, the more likely you are to come up with great ideas.
6. Practice the art of counterbalance
In his book The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene wrote,
“Whenever you experience unusual gains or losses, that is precisely the time to step back and counterbalance them with some necessary pessimism or optimism.”
Humans are by nature reactive. We tend to be blinded by whatever is most apparent at the moment.
When all is going well, we get too excited. If we are having a winning streak, we begin to feel like we cannot fail. Our confidence in our abilities soar.
When things get tough, on the other hand, we easily forget that things will still get better. And as such, we wallow in worry, depression, and hopelessness.
This attitude however has led to several regrettable decisions.
Why? A person who begins to make reckless moves because he or she is carried away by a series of wins will soon make a regrettable mistake.
On the other hand, if because of a series of failures you become fearful and immobile, you might end up losing great opportunities.
The best attitude therefore is counterbalancing: Meaning, when all is going well, step back and apply a bit of pessimism. Remember that you don’t have a golden touch; anything could go wrong.
When all is going badly, on the other hand, know it’s time to express optimism because nothing lasts forever.
7. Find time to reflect
Time alone to reflect is necessary for making good decisions.
Studies suggest that reflection fosters self-awareness and helps us build on our past knowledge to make well-informed choices in the present.
What made Pericles always come up with great solutions to problems as a leader was his ability to find time alone to reflect.
And the reason this habit is so effective is that the more time you spend alone to deliberate, the lesser influence emotion and ego will have on your thinking.
8. Practice simplicity in decision making
There’s only so much energy and attention to go around. Hence, you must decide what matters wisely.
Most people cannot make good decisions because they are caught up in trivialities.
Get your hand on what matters. Decide what needs your attention at a particular time. As Goethe once said, “When a man asks too much and delights in complication, he is exposed to perplexity.”
Avoid overstretching yourself or clouding your mind with things that you cannot control.
A large part of making good decisions is simply choosing your battles wisely. Don’t take everything as a game of rationality. Know what requires critical thinking and what’s irrelevant.
9. Always imagine all possible scenarios
One of the major things that leads to bad decisions is overconfidence.
For instance, if you are about to enter a trade or place a bet, the only reason you’ll end up risking too much and eventually getting screwed is that you never imagined losing.
But if on the other hand, you’ve imagined — and accepted — the possibility of things going sideways, then it’s much more likely that you’ll make a reasonable bet.
Understand that wrong decision strive on intense emotions. Imagining that things can only go right will only make unrealistically fired up and highly susceptible to choices that will eventually backfire.
Always imagine all possible scenarios. This will help calm you down and make you more grounded in reality.
We don’t like to imagine that things could go wrong, but that’s reality. You are not special; you have just the same probability to fail just like anyone else.
“Rationality,” Robert Greene said in The Laws of Human Nature, “is the ability to counteract emotional effects, to think instead of reacting, to open your mind to what is really happening, as opposed to what you are feeling.”
Most of what you need to do to be more rational is counterintuitive. This is why it’s a skill that takes time to cultivate.
Humans are by nature drawn here and there by their emotions. To be rational is to subdue human nature itself.