It goes without saying that making choices is part of what it means to be an adult. Some of them are relatively simple, like narrowing down dinner options or deciding what to wear to work on the day of a big meeting. Then, there are the more complicated decisions that affect others and can invoke feelings of selfishness and guilt, like whether you should leave your current job where you’re needed and respected for another where there’s more opportunity for growth. Or, say you’re a skilled engineer — do you spend your time fixing your friends’ iPhones, or decline so you can spend time doing more meaningful work that also advances your career? Of course, each decision is a personal one, but a new study from Ohio State University suggests there’s a mindset you can adopt that will help you make decisions that maximize benefits for you and others — big picture thinking — without the guilt associated with selfishness.
One key to maximizing benefits for everyone, according to the study’s lead author Paul Stillman, PhD, is accepting the fact that sometimes the best decision will benefit you the most. He added, “The most efficient decision is the one that is going to maximize the total pie. Sometimes it makes the most sense to seem a bit selfish if that is going to maximize overall benefits.”
In the study, researchers assigned 106 students one of two distinct frames of mind: the first, a “big picture” (what psychologists call “high construal” thinking) mindset; the second, an immediate, present-day mindset. One experiment asked students to make anonymous decisions about how to split up money between themselves and four others with the goal of maximizing benefits. Ultimately, “maximizing benefits” meant something different to each of the participants — half of them understood the phrase as making decisions that favor others, while the other half understood it as making decisions that favor themselves. The results revealed that those with a “big picture” mindset almost always made choices that maximized total value for the group, whether or not the choice was most helpful to them. Meaning, they were cool with decisions that seemed selfish, so long as they felt the decision maximized benefits for the group. Three other experiments confirmed these results, though using slightly different scenarios.
While the results are intriguing, I found myself wondering how I could actually implement big picture thinking — especially since I often find myself focused on immediate outcomes. So I got in touch with Stillman to see what he’d recommend for someone like me. First off, he suggested taking a “metaphorical step back”, which is another way of saying put distance between yourself and whatever it is you’re considering, like imagining you’re a fly on the wall watching yourself. When you remove yourself from the situation and observe as an outsider, you’re more likely to make the smart choice — the one that serves you and others. Next, he says, you should imagine you’re helping someone else make the decision, rather than yourself. This advice resonated with me and in my experience, has been a tried and true method for making smart choices. Would I urge a loved one to make this decision? Yes? Decision made!