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This is how to decide between two seemingly equally good options

If the options are similar, even if the decision is really important, you probably won’t go too far wrong, no matter what you choose. Still, here’s how to make a tough choice.

This is how to decide between two seemingly equally good options
[Image: AlessandroMassimiliano/iStock]

There are many things that can make a decision difficult. Sometimes the consequences of the choice are significant. Sometimes you don’t know a lot about the options. Sometimes the situation is so complicated that it is hard to wrap your head around it. But a common situation is that the options are quite similar overall, and so none of them are clearly the best.

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What can you do in that case?

Beware of comparisons

When you are faced with several options at the same time, it is natural to compare them to each other. Unfortunately, those comparisons bias the way you look at information.

Research I did early in my career found that there are two kinds of differences that emerge from comparisons. Some differences are directly related to what a pair of options have in common. For example, if you are deciding between two apartments, one might be on a higher floor in the building than the other. These differences are called alignable differences, because they relate to how the information about the options is placed in correspondence.

Some differences are unrelated to what the options have in common. For example, one apartment might have a breakfast nook, while the other does not. These differences are called nonalignable differences.

In general, people pay less attention to the nonalignable differences than to the alignable differences. That means that if a set of options seems similar in their attractiveness, it is possible that they are similar mostly in their alignable differences. If so, you should find a way to pay more attention to the nonalignable differences.

One way to do that is to bear in mind that after you choose, you will no longer be comparing the options to each other. Instead, you will be living with the option you selected. So try to evaluate each of the options independently of the others. Imagine what it will be like to have that option rather than focusing on the relative advantages of one over the other. That will help you to take those nonalignable properties into account.

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Look for what you’re missing

A second issue is that you have to be confident in the information you have about the options. Often, we use the information that is easiest to access. Choosing among apartments, you might focus on a sheet prepared by the realtor as well as things you were able to see on your own visit.

If you feel stuck between options that don’t seem that different, dig a little deeper. Find other people who have tried those options before. Look for reviews online. If you have a friend or colleague who is an expert in their area, have them tell you what questions you should have asked that you haven’t already.

Sometimes, the less available information can lead you to important factors that you might have missed, had the decision been easier.

Stop stressing

In the end, though, if the options really are very similar, then you need to relax. Even if the decision is really important, you probably won’t go too far wrong, no matter which one you pick.

Also, once you pick an option, commit to and focus on it. There is a tendency after you make a decision to continue comparing the option you chose to the ones that got away. Unfortunately, this happens most often when there is something about the option you picked that is less than perfect. You pine for what you could have had if you had selected something else.

That dissatisfaction can feed on itself. Once you’re unhappy with a decision, you start focusing on all the reasons why you don’t like what you picked. And that can make you regret what was probably on balance a decent choice. So enjoy the option you chose rather than living in the alternate world in which you picked a different option.

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