How We Make Decisions

How We Make Decisions

by Chris
October 27, 2021

Most advice for copywriters is highly tactical:

  • “Write how you talk”
  • “Tell stories”
  • “Use social proof”

But we rarely talk about why these principles are effective.

I dug into recent research by psychologist Roy Baumeister to learn how people think about the future. 

Thinking About The Future

Most animals live in the immediate present. They don’t remember the past. They don’t think about the future.

Humans are different. We can think back on the past. We can imagine the future. And we can use those thoughts to guide our actions in the present.

And understanding how we do that is the key to writing great copy.

Most psychological research has tried to explain human behavior based on the past.

But that approach misses an important insight:

We’re almost always thinking about the future… not the past.

Sometimes we focus on the immediate future, like noticing a pile of toys on the floor we don’t want to trip over.

Other times, we’re focused on the more distant future, like planning for our retirement.

The Dream and The Reality

Almost every time we think about the future, we tend to have ridiculously optimistic expectations.

We consistently overestimate the odds that we’ll get what we want… whether it’s finding love, losing weight, or getting rich.

Here’s the thing, though:

We’re also notoriously pessimistic.

When we’re asked to actually make choices about the future, we tend to hedge our bets and avoid risk.

We get advice from a financial advisor before we invest. We stay at jobs even when we hate them. We don’t dump all our money into crypto. (Most of us, anyway.)

And that’s weird.

If the future is actually as bright as we say it is, we should be eager to take risks to achieve our goals. But we don’t.

What this suggests is that people actually think about the future in a multi-step process.

First, we imagine the future we want. And our expectations tend to be wildly optimistic.

Then, we decide how to make it happen. Once we’re in this planning stage, we tend to get much more realistic… and often quite negative in our outlook.

And this makes sense. Plans won’t get us very far if they’re not tethered to reality. To make an effective plan, we need to account for the actual limitations, challenges, and risks we face.

This is consistent with Tversky and Kahneman’s two-system model of the mind.

The first step is where we imagine the future. It’s immediate, intuitive, and automatic.

The second step is where we decide how to act. It’s slow, methodical, and deliberate.

Roy Baumeister and his colleagues call this process pragmatic prospection.

And it helps us see the true purpose of thinking. It’s not just to imagine the future you want. It’s to decide how to act so you can make it happen.

That’s why just imagining our dream state isn’t enough.

Sometimes people are content to just imagine the dream state they want in the future.

These fantasies feel nice. They give us an imagined feeling of success and accomplishment.

But on their own, those positive feelings actually give us a false sense of satisfaction that can reduce our motivation to act.

To guide our actions, we need more than that.

We need to pair that picture of our dream state with a realistic assessment of the options before us.

Almost every time we make a decision, we can see a range of possibilities. And we recognize that depending on the course of action we take, we’ll get different outcomes.

Thinking In Stories

So how do we think those possibilities through?

We think in stories.

Human beings think in narrative-driven terms. We see our actions as part of a story that extends from the past, through the present, and into the future.

If you’re starting a running routine, it feels like a journey – one that begins in the past with your old, out of shape self and extends into the future as you start reaching big fitness goals.

So it’s no surprise that our plans for the future have a narrative structure, too.

We’re mentally imagining different courses of action, step by step. And trying to decide what will lead to the best outcome.

That’s why techniques like future pacing are so powerful.

They help your reader see how your solution can help them reach their dream state – and just as important, how not choosing your solution will lead them to outcomes they want to avoid.

As Baumeister says, “a plan is a story about the future.”

When we make decisions, we are quite literally deciding how we want our story to go.

And how do we want that story to end?

Simple. We want to reach our dream state.

When we envision our dream state, we almost always want our ideal outcome, quickly and easily… without investing time, money, or effort.

That’s what makes it the dream.

(And it’s why simply envisioning your dream won’t get you very far.)

Our dream state anchors our planning process. It sets our expectations for what we want to achieve.

The problem comes when we start to imagine possible courses of action. We start to see how time, expense, effort, and the risk of failure could lead to outcomes we don’t want.

The job of your copy is to address these objections… so your readers come away assured that you can help them reach their dream state.

Making a Decision

So you can imagine all these possibilities for the future. But how do you actually make a decision?

That’s where emotion comes in.

When you imagine possible narratives for the future, you’re also imagining how you’ll react emotionally to different outcomes.

All of us have learned over time that we have very different emotional reactions to different outcomes. We try to avoid outcomes that make us feel bad and seek outcomes that leave us feeling good.

We’ll discard a plan that we think will end with regret, and opt for the plan we expect will leave us feeling fulfilled.

That’s why it’s almost impossible to make decisions without emotion. And people who lack emotional responsiveness are paralyzed by even simple choices, as Antonio Damasio has shown.

Whenever you make a choice, you’re trying to reach your dream state.

And your readers are, too.

Show them how you can make the dream a reality, and you’ll get results from your copy you never imagined possible.


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