Jonathan Jackson’s gut instinct works a little differently than most. When he’s making a big decision, he not only feels intuitively which choice is best, but also sees a geometric model of how his priorities have influenced that feeling. "The lines push and pull," he says. "The shapes have gravity. I get a sense of a shape’s weight by how it tugs the shapes around it. Nodes and edges pull one another, and that’s quantifiable. I don’t see numbers, necessarily, but I see the shapes I associate with those numbers. That allows me to track the tangle of shapes and lines somewhat mathematically in my mind’s eye."
Jackson has a spatial form synesthesia—the same cognitive condition that leads others to see colors associated with music—that allows him to easily create such models in his head.
Since this process, to him, is almost like instinct, he never put it to paper until he wanted to externalize his decision-making process. For some people, that would have meant making a "pros" and "cons" list. For Jackson, it meant writing an algorithm that accomplished mathematically what he saw spatially. He took all of the priorities that influenced his decision about where to move after grad school and ranked each possible choice on each priority. Then he weighed each priority based on its importance before calculating an overall score for each option.
He didn’t really need an algorithm to find the answers, because he intuitively knew which choices scored best and by what percentage. "Really what I was doing," he says, "is understanding why my gut feeling is moving toward Seattle."
Mapping out his process took him from something that looked, in his mind, something like a fluid version of this:
To an organized process that looked something more like this:
"After grad school, the lines tugged toward Seattle, but New York and LA pulled hard, too," he says. "I wrote [the] algorithm to lay out each line neatly and cleanly—to put everything in a row. It helped me think clearly and check my approximate, gut sense of the math."
Though few people see decision-making in geometric terms, Jackson believes they could benefit by similarly dissecting whatever thought process they do use to guide their intuition. His app, called Choicemap, makes his inner algorithm accessible to anyone. Users rate options on each of their priorities and rate priorities by importance, and the app ranks the options.
At first glance, it looks like something you might use in lieu of a Magic 8-Ball: "I can’t decide what to do. App, advise me." But Choicemap could be more accurately described as an app not for making decisions, but for thinking them through. Usually we already have an answer in mind when we’re mulling over a decision. Maybe, as in Jackson’s case, it’s a feeling that one line in his dynamic diorama has more weight than another. Or maybe it’s just a vague inkling that we’ll be happier with car X over car Y. Either way, Jackson thinks, we could benefit by examining more closely why it is we feel that way.
"If I can think about that clearly and say, ‘What is actually influencing my decision, how do I give that weight, and have that influence my decision properly?’ then I’m a lot more confident when I make the decision," he says. "It’s not simply a futile thing. After I’ve walked through the process, I am clear-headed, I can act confidently, I don’t second-guess decisions I’ve made ... Because I have walked through the process and I understand what is influencing me, I have given good decision-making the best possible chance."