May 10, 2022

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Pro/Con Lists - A Framework for Effective Decision Making

At a glance

Welcome to the 496(!) new friends of the Mental Models, Concepts, and Frameworks newsletter who have joined us since last week!

This week we've got a framework for better decision-making:

For many people, Pro/Con lists are the go-to decision-making tool for most decisions:

  • Where to live?
  • Where to work?
  • Where to study?

They involve listing all the positive things about a certain decision (the pros) and comparing them against the negative things (the cons).

While useful in extremely simple cases, Pro/Con lists have big shortcomings:

1/ They cause you to overlook the cons

2/ They don't assign weights to the items

3/ They assume there are only two options

4/ They lead to too many items which clouds decisions

Let me explain.

1/ They cause you to overlook the cons

Ever heard of the grass-is-greener mentality?

It's when you mentally exaggerate the potential positives of something—a job or location—and downplay the negatives.

This is a natural tendency that's very hard to avoid: like it or not.

2/ They don't assign weights to the items

In reality, each pro/con has a different 'impact' to you and should be treated as such.

For example, you have preferences which cause some factors to be more important than others.

These should be highlighted or given greater weight.

3/ They assume there are only two options

AKA 'The Framing Effect.'

Only evaluating two alternatives leads to Narrow Framing: A bias created by constraining the set of possible outcomes.

In decision making, it's important to consider variations of options, not just two.

4/ They lead to too many items which clouds decisions

With a Pro-Con list, it's tempting to spend hours listing out all the possible factors to include.

This can lead to an overwhelming list that's hard to make sense of.

Instead, we should focus on the few that count.

So, what to use instead of a Pro-Con list?

The simplest way to improve a Pro-Con list is by adding weights to it.

Go through each item and assign a score of -5 (for negatives) to +5 (for positives) according to how important that item is relative to others.

For example, you're considering a new career.

Autonomy is more important to you than location. So, give autonomy a higher score than location.

For each option (or the new compared to status quo), you then have a more objective picture of their relative strength (numerically).

This methodology is a simple example of a cost-benefit analysis.

It solves most of the issues of pro-con lists by:

  1. Assigning weights
  2. Helping you think seriously about the cons
  3. Allowing an easier (mathematical) comparison between the two options

That's it, I hope you enjoyed reading!

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