In an argument, participants typically take turns shining a spotlight on the options they want or don’t want. I’m fascinated by how rarely anyone shines a floodlight instead of a spotlight, aiming to expose all options at once.

By “all options” I mean more than just the prevailing proposals—but less than the infinite variety of subtly different alternatives that could be devised. I mean identifying the few key dimensions on which a decision pivots, plus all their permutations.

Among those who study decision processes, list making goes in and out of favor. Early work in decision theory aimed to optimize decisions, and listing your options was considered essential. Then the field shifted to how people really make decisions under “bounded rationality.” Nobel PrizeGÇôwinning economist Herbert Simon argued that people rarely optimize. Instead, we satisfice. We pursue good enough (sufficiently satisfactory) solutions. Gary Klein studied how expert fire chiefs make decisions and noted that they never list options. They assess the fire quickly, pick the first intuitive option and stick with it unless it fails. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent bestseller, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” enumerates the virtues of decision making that relies on impulse rather than list making.

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While the intuitive approach makes sense for firefighting, however, it isn’t applicable when the problem to be solved is a slow burner. With protracted or smoldering decisions, I count three counterproductive impulse-driven approaches that can be remedied by making exhaustive lists of options:

  1. Hem and haw: Don’t decide. Hold out for a better option to come along.
  2. Shanghai: Pick the first intuitive option. Stick with it steadfastly.
  3. Magpie: Redecide. Settle the same question over and over.

Hem and haw: Decisions are, by definition, bets that have trade-offs. Everyone would much prefer sure-fire winners with no downsides. The bigger the decision, the more ‘tempting it is to hold out for an option that’s free of trade-offs and uncertainties. Holding out for a really great option, we say, “No, not these. I’ll keep searching. There must be a better way.”

“There must be a better way,” is an incantation designed to motivate committed searching. After all, if there’s a better way, you merely have to persist and you’re sure to discover it. Still, declaring that there must be a better way doesn’t mean that there really is one. Once you array all logical options, you see whether in fact there’s a better way. If there isn’t, you can make your best choice and move on.

Shanghai: To shanghai means to drug a man unconscious and drag him out to sea, turning him into a sailor against his will. We can shanghai ourselves, intoxicated by the pleasures of certainty. Compared to doubt and disharmony, certainty and harmony look like a real party. As a result, when people start riffling through options, quite often they drift unconsciously from exploring to committing.

You set out to explore options. At first glance you find one pleasing, and before you know it, you’re wed to the idea. It’s like going into a clothes store, trying on a pair of pants, and assuming that because you’re wearing them you are committed to buying them.

On big decisions, it’s useful to discipline yourself to generate an exhaustive list of options both because it prevents you from missing good ones and because it promises a clear alternative to open-ended uncertainty. The exhaustive list is a finite list. Knowing that the decision-making process isn’t open- ended allows the participants to relax and accept some doubt and disharmony, ‘knowing that the condition is temporary. And since the exhaustive list isn’t just a list of options people are advocating, listing the logical possibilities tends to neutralize the authorship question. It turns the debate from away whose proposal and toward which proposal is best.

Magpie: When a decision is a slow-burning one without a clear deadline, it’s hard to stick to a chosen option. ‘The certainty a solution promises is comforting, but some new doubt always arises to make it seem like a good idea to reopen the decision. The line between deciding and decided gets blurred, and as a result we cycle and recycle.

Ten years ago, after reading an early paper I wrote, a British professor on my Ph.D. committee called me a magpie. I didn’t know the reference so he explained that a magpie picks up a shiny bauble and plays with it for a minute and then, distracted by another bauble, drops the first. He doesn’t keep track from bauble to bauble. I’ve worked on the writing problem and am rarely if ever called a magpie these days, but the image has stuck, and magpies are my mascots for this desultory style of decision making.

If you find yourself behaving like a magpie, you can start to build an exhaustive list by remembering the options you adopted and dropped along the way. Each is like a trail marker that outlines the contours of the decision terrain. Notice what variables you altered when you moved from option to option and work out all the logical combinations. With map in hand you can trace your desultory steps. The moments of dejá vu alone are usually enough to make you settle in.

Floodlighting Tools:

The mindreader’s workbox includes some basic tools for drafting exhaustive lists of options. I’ll describe one here and others in subsequent pieces.

Any persistent problem can be viewed as posing a core array of three options: ‘take it, leave it, or try to change it. In a troubled marriage, for example, the options are accept it as it is (“marriages, after all, are never perfect”), divorce (“hey, life is short, if it’s not working, move on”), and try to change it (“marriage takes work, so hold a high standard and make the necessary effort).

These three options go by different names in different contexts. The human biological stress response (sympathetic nervous system) is responsible for managing three options: flight, fight, and surrender. Flight, of course, is leaving, divorcing. Fight is trying to change things, and surrender is accepting things.

In political science the three options open to disgruntled citizens are called exit, voice, and loyalty. Exit is leaving, voice is fighting or trying to change things, and loyalty is accepting things.

Evolutionary biology recognizes the fundamental tension between three forces: variation , selection, and replication. Variation changes things, selection removes things (making them leave), and replication keeps things repeating, more of the same, accepting them as they are.

The serenity prayer (“Grant me the serenity to accept. . .”) represents two of these three choices, with the third implied: the serenity to accept (take it), the courage to change (try to change), and the implicit option to quit, which is sort of like the courage to change of a higher order. That is, I can try to change things from within — or change whether I’m in at all, by leaving.

Notice that no matter what the context, these three options are in tension, demanding very different behaviors — and adherence to only one, so that the others do not undermine it. For example, if you’re going to fight, don’t show surrender. But if you’re going to going to surrender, don’t show fight. If you’re going to campaign to fix your marriage, don’t signal that you’re leaving.

This inflexibility makes it especially costly to shift between them (see Mix Tax). It also means that when two people are negotiating the best solution to a common problem, the debate about the three options can be particularly rancorous (see Same Ends, Alternative Means).

Here’s an example. Suppose that a couple—call them X and Y—are deciding what to do about their troubled marriage. The three core options (Accept, Bail, Change) unfold into nine pairs of responses.

CC: They work together to change their relationship. Of course, having decided to change it, the big question is how?

AA: Both decide to just accept it in its current state. Neither partner rocks the boat.

BB: They make a mutual decision to divorce.

CA: He wants to try to change things; she’d rather let sleeping dogs lie.

CB: He wants to try to fix the relationship, but she’s done, ready for divorce.

AB: He says it’s good enough; she’s ready to leave. (He warns her, “Oh baby, baby, it’s a wild world.”)

AC: She wants to change the relationship, but he says, “Why do you have to always nag? Why can’t you accept me as I am.”

BC: She says, “Let’s work on this relationship”; he says, “Look, if you’re going to try to change me, I’m outta here.”

BA: She’s saying “Take me as I am”; he’s out the door.

One telltale sign that you’ve found a universal dilemma is how many clich+¬s have accumulated in people’s dealings with it. Language can be like white blood cells rushing to a recurrently open wound.

Our everyday language is full of ways of rhetorically spinning one of the three positions in debate: Let sleeping dogs lie, take it or leave it, my way or the highway, put up or shut up, when the going gets tough the tough get going . . ., don’t go there, get over it, quit your whining, dare to dream, aim high, you can’t change people (so change your attitude), persistence furthers.

Having the ABC list enables us to unspin the rhetoric and maintain enough neutrality to make sound decisions: “Take it or leave it? Well, I hear you trying to convince me that changing it isn’t an option, but I’m not convinced yet. Let’s keep talking.”

Biologists note that adaptation is a tradeoff between exploiting found solutions and exploring for new solutions. Adaptation is our R-V, our re-creational vehicle, carrying us forward by the combination of R- replication and V-variation. Replication is accepting things as they are, doing more of the same. Variation is changing things, trying something different. We re- create ourselves daily through some combination of repeating and changing ourselves.

Deciding whether it’s time to spotlight or floodlight is a question that plays out on this same continuum between change and variation. Spotlighting is a way of sticking with a solution you’re already committed to, repeating (replicating) an argument you’re hoping will prevail. Floodlighting is listing all the logically possible variations. There’s a time for both. On big, open-ended decisions, floodlighting can be enlightening.