Pondering an important decision? Chances are that you will consider drawing up a list of pros and cons of the options. The pros-and-cons list enjoys a long and storied history, going back at least as far as 1772, when Benjamin Franklin advised his friend and fellow scientist Joseph Priestley to “divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con.” But how useful is a pros-and-cons list, really? It’s only fitting to consider the pros and cons of this popular decision-making tool:
Rigor. Making the effort to think through all possible pros and cons of a given course of action, and then capturing them in writing, minimizes the likelihood that critical factors have been missed. Assigning weights to each of the pros and cons is an additional exercise that promotes deeper thinking and presumably leads to better-quality decision making.
Emotional distance. Important decisions are likely to evoke powerful emotions. Going through the steps of creating a pros-and-cons list can create what researchers Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross refer to as a “self-distanced perspective,” in which the decision is viewed as an “external” problem to be addressed, easing the impact of the emotions surrounding the decision. Deferring the decision pending the pro-con analysis also provides a gap in time in which powerful emotions can dissipate, reducing the risk of an “amygdala hijack,” the cognitive phenomenon popularized by Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence writings, in which perceived emotional threats can lead to extreme actions, often with undesirable outcomes.
Familiarity and simplicity. Perhaps most compelling of all, the pros-and-cons list is generally well understood, requires no special computational or analytical expertise, and is elegantly simple to administer.
Vulnerable to cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are common patterns of thinking that have been demonstrated to lead to errors in judgment and poor decision making. Unfortunately, the same simplicity that makes a pros-and-cons list so appealing creates many opportunities for a host of cognitive biases to emerge, including:
- Framing effect. Pros-and-cons lists generally are about evaluating two alternatives: a “thumbs up or thumbs down” scenario and an example of “narrow framing,” a bias created by overly constraining the set of possible outcomes.
- Overconfidence effect. A well-established cognitive bias is the tendency of individuals to overestimate the reliability of their judgments. When creating a pros-and-cons lists, it is likely that many people assume a level of accuracy in their assessment of pros and cons that simply isn’t there.
- Illusion of control. When faced with the task of envisioning possible outcomes, a common bias is to believe that one can control outcomes that in reality are not controllable.
Reliance on analytical thinking. Using an analytical tool such as a pros-and-cons list emphasizes the objective, “just the facts” side of decision making. Intuition, or what Daniel Goleman terms “direct knowing,” has captured the attention of many brain science researchers. In one study, the “absence of attentive deliberation,” AKA “go with your gut,” was demonstrated to result in decisions with better outcomes than those derived from the use of analytical tools.
My experience as an executive coach suggests that for the vast majority of decisions that my clients deem to be critical, a pros-and-cons list is useful only as a very high-level preliminary thinking aid. I believe this is because the decisions leaders most often bring to coaching are ones for which they perceive the stakes as being high — the client has strong positive or negative (or both) emotions associated with possible outcomes. And when the stakes are high, the potential interference of cognitive biases, wishful thinking, self-limiting beliefs, and similar barriers to objectivity rise. High-stakes decisions therefore require approaches that address these complications. Self-awareness, reflection, and actively applying a range of mindsets are examples of alternatives to the pros-and-cons list that shed light on these hidden, unconscious cognitive biases, ultimately leading to better insights and better decision outcomes.