Lesson 9: Weighted pros and cons

Often some of the biggest decisions we make in life are binary. Should I accept the job offer or stick with my current job? Should I move in with my girlfriend or stay with my friends? Should I move my family across the country to a new town, or stick with where we are now?

It has always been this way.

America’s Founding Father Benjamin Franklin reputation for wisdom meant that he was on the receiving end of countless pleas for advice. In 1772 his friend, English scientist Joseph Priestley was torn by a major life decision. He was offered a job that would give him financial stability, but it also meant he would have to move his family away several hundred miles to a new home in the south of England. Instead of telling his friend what to do, Franklin told his friend how to think.

The conventional advice, particularly for personal decisions, is to make a list of pros and cons. Implicit in a simple pros/cons list is that each pro and con has the same weight, that we value each the same and that the options have the same chance of success. Franklin told him to think about what matters.

Using this decision making method Priestley accepted the position and moved his family to the other side of the country. It proved to be a turning point in the history of science.

So let’s see how you can use this technique.

How to improve your decision making using pros and cons

  • List the criteria: Start by listing the factors that are important to each option. By writing them down we can increase the number of factors that we take account of, often uncovering ones that were not immediately obvious.
  • Assign weights: Not every criterion will be equally important to you. Whether it’s on a scale of 1–10 or 1–100 decide on an approach for how important things are to you.
  • Calculate, and then reflect: Add up the score, but don’t decide straight away. Maybe you come up with an unexpected result, something that wasn’t on your radar before you started this exercise.
  • Consider the probability of success: As a final step before deciding, consider the likelihood that a particular option will succeed. This does away with wishful thinking. This might mean that a seemingly great alternative with a low probability of success might end up being less valuable than a pretty good alternative with a higher chance of success.

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