Benjamin Franklin, 1772, on dealing with difficult decisions:

“When these difficult cases occur, they are difficult, chiefly because while we have them under consideration, all the reasons pro and con are not present to mind at the same time; but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the ?rst being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternatively prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.”

One huge barrier to making good career decisions (and good decisions in general!) is thinking too narrowly. As Benjamin Franklin points out, often when making difficult decisions there is far too much relevant information for us to hold in our mind all at once. There are too many options, and too many different ways to compare them, to possibly consider this all at the same time. Not only this, it seems we often think we’ve got a broader view than we have. Not only do we have vastly incomplete knowledge for the decision we’re trying to make, but we’re under the illusion that it’s complete, and so don’t even try to expand it. This is pretty worrying, and it means we could end up missing really great opportunities to make a difference.

There are three key ways in which “narrow framing” can affect career decisions:

Considering too narrow a set of alternatives: Before making any career decision, you need to know what your options are. However, it seems that people often consider too narrow a set of options to start with.1

Considering too narrow a set of objectives: Once you’ve got your set of options, to choose between them you need objectives on which to evaluate them. But in fact, people often don’t consider what their objectives are at all,1 and at best their lists are incomplete.2

Having too narrow a view of the future: To make good career decisions you need to be able to think about what might happen in the future. But people often overestimate their ability to predict the future and fail to appreciate how uncertain it is.3

In this post I’ll focus on the problem of narrow framing when generating career options, and suggest some techniques for broadening your options. I’ll address the problems posed by the second two types of narrow framing and how to deal with them in upcoming posts.

Why do we think too narrowly about our career options?

That we think often think too narrowly about our career options seems both intuitively plausible and supported by the psychological literature.1, 2 In particular, a number of common cognitive biases seem to be behind our tendency to think about options too narrowly:

  • The availability heuristic: assuming that because something comes to mind easily, it must be good. This suggests we’re likely to overweight options that are readily available, reducing incentives to seek out new or less common options.

  • Anchoring: a tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information given when making decisions. This might narrow our options both in number: by making us less likely to consider other options, and in scope: as we’re more likely to consider options similar to the first one.

Research on creativity also supports this idea that once a first approach to a decision or problem is generated, we find it difficult to consider new alternatives.4

  • Status quo bias: an irrational preference for the current state of affairs. This suggests that we’re likely to prefer jobs that fit the “status quo”, and not seek out unfamiliar or uncommon options.

  • The sunk cost fallacy: we tend to assign more weight to options that we’ve already invested time and effort into. If you’ve spent 5 years in medical school, for example, you’re fairly unlikely to consider options outside of medicine. But the mere fact you’ve invested time or effort doesn’t mean the option is preferable: sometimes it’s better to just accept these as sunk costs.

These biases are well-established for decision making in general, and there’s no reason to believe they don’t extend to career choice. There’s also some evidence of narrow framing in closely related situations such as business decision making: MBA students, when asked to generate their objectives for choosing an internship generated on average 7 alternatives – but when given the chance to overview each others’ ideas found at least 7 more objectives that they deemed equally important.4 Alongside its intuitive plausibility, this suggests that narrow framing is likely to strongly influence many peoples’ career decisions. This is clearly problematic: it might mean you’re just completely missing your perfect career! What can you do about this?

How can you broaden your options?

1) Use a framework

One explanation for why we tend to think too narrowly when thinking through options is that it’s difficult to know where to start. Early or available options provide a starting point, explaining why we may end up anchoring on them.

Having a framework for generating options can provide a starting point whilst ensuring you consider a variety of alternatives. The idea of a framework is to somehow divide the space of possible alternatives into different categories, and then to think through your options in various categories. Making sure you generate options within all categories should help increase the scope of options considered. Using multiple different frameworks for generating options could be an even better way to ensure you consider a wide variety of careers.

Some possible ways of categorising careers for thinking through options:

2) Talk to other people

Whilst your own view of the options available to you might be narrow, combining the (even equally narrow) perspectives of a number of people can sometimes create a far broader view. A large body of research suggests that in the right circumstances, groups can generate a much wider set of alternatives than individuals can.5, 6 Other people might well consider career options you’ve overlooked and vice versa. So talking to as many different people as possible about what career options they’re considering could be a really good way to broaden your options.

However, be careful here: emphasis is on talking to as many different people as possible. Whilst pooling together multiple perspectives mostly broadens the viewpoint, perspectives that are too similar will tend to have shared blind spots.1 People are also easily influenced and can anchor on the options of others if the generating of options is done together. The best way to deal with this is to seek out the viewpoints of as many diverse people as possible, and to each have thought through your own options first before pooling ideas.

3) “Consider the opposite”

To prevent anchoring on early, plausible sounding options, a technique called “consider the opposite” may be helpful.1 If one option seems particularly attractive or dominant, ask yourself “Why might this option not be as good as I think it is?” Once you’ve highlighted those aspects of existing options which may be less than favourable, ask “What alternatives might be better in these respects?”

This technique of “consider the opposite” has been found to be useful as a general debiasing technique in a number of situations.7 Considering options that appeal for very different reasons than those you already have should simultaneously a) allow you to generate more options, b) help you to consider a wider diversity of options, and c) prevent you from anchoring on early, plausible-sounding options.

You might also enjoy:

Sunk costs in careers

Are you cheating career choice?

One (potentially great!) career option you’ve probably missed: the high impact PA

References and notes:

  1. See Richard P. Larrick, “Broaden the decision frame to make effective decisions” in the Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behaviour for a review of the psychological evidence for narrow framing. 
  2. Bond, S. D., Carlson, K. A. ,and Keeney, R. L. (2008) Generating objectives: Can decision makers articulate what they want? Management Science, 54, 56–70 
  3. Buehler, R., Grif?n, D., and Ross, M. ( 2002 ) Inside the planning fallacy: The causes and consequences of optimistic time prediction, In T. Gilovich, D. Grif?n, and D. Kahneman (eds), Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (pp. 250–270 ) 
  4. Chrysikou, E. G., and Weisberg, R. W. (2005) Following the wrong footsteps: Fixation effects of pictorial examples in a design problem – solving task, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31, 1134–1148 
  5. James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few 
  6. Gettys, C. F., Pliske, R. M., Manning, C., and Casey, J. T. (1987) An evaluation of human act generation performance, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 39 , 23–51 
  7. Larrick, R. P. (2004) Debiasing In D. J. Koehler and N. Harvey (eds), The Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making (pp. 316–337)