The “career-making” question that will help you make better decisions

“What would it take to change your mind?”
“What would it take to change your mind?”
Image: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo
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Cassie Kozyrkov is the chief decision scientist at Google, serving as an expert within the company in both data science and decision making, so when Quartz asked her for insights for our field guide on decision making, we cut to the chase. If you could suggest one way to improve my team’s decision-making, we asked, without knowing much about our domain or industry specifically, what would you suggest?

Her answer was to ask what she calls the “career-making question for data scientists,” which is “What would it take to change your mind?” Says Kozyrkov:

“Most people don’t ask this question enough and you might be surprised how much your team’s decision-making improves when you start every decision with it. Coming up with an answer forces the team to confront their pre-existing opinions, identify the extent to which their mind is already set, understand how they navigate their context, clarify their assumptions, declare the information they need, and add structure to the decision process. It also adds a layer of protection against cognitive biases like confirmation bias.”

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Don Moore, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests the same thing. Asking why you might be wrong isn’t just a mirror image of asking why you might be right; it forces your brain to work harder. As Moore writes in his book Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely:

“When you go into the world asking, ‘Is this hypothesis true?’ you may be tempted to believe you are taking a neutral approach, but you are not. Simply the way you pose the question can influence the answer in subtle and surprising ways. It will be easier for you to think of evidence that allows you to answer yes. You will formulate questions that are more likely to generate affirmative answers. When you ask other people these questions, they will be more likely to respond in the affirmative or to provide you with evidence that supports your hypothesis.

The question ‘Is this hypothesis false?’ generates a different approach, a different line of thinking, different responses, and different conclusions. Ignorance of the way you bias your search for information leads you to be too confident in the biased conclusions that result.”

That’s why so many decision making experts recommend doing a “premortem” before making an important decision. In a premortem, participants explicitly imagine that their decision turned out badly and then tell a story about why that was. Doing so forces them to consider information and perspectives that they may have unconsciously discounted.