How Likely Is This?

Read time —
2 Minutes
Last updated
April 27, 2024
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Decisions frequently focus on one outcome.

We made the decision to order pizza for dinner one evening. It was cheaper to collect, so that was the option we chose.  The outcome had us drooling. A hot pizza base covered in tomato sauce, pepperoni, and cheese so warm it would turn to string as you took a bite.

Collecting the pizza threw some uncertainty into the mix. The pizzeria was at the bottom of a steep hill, covered in snow from a blizzard that afternoon. Unsurprisingly, the outcome looked less likely.

The journey back was going to take longer meaning the warm pizza won’t be so warm anymore. Then there was the risk the car wouldn’t make it back up the hill at all, leaving me, the driver well fed, but everyone at home still hungry.

This information was available, but we were too focused on the pizza.

The way to overcome this is to consider different outcomes. It is the first stage of building what Annie Duke calls a decision tree. You build the tree by creating branches. These are alternative outcomes to your decision. It is a process of asking what might happen. An outcome is not guaranteed. It is the trade of entropy we don’t consider. Rarely do we pause and ask, “What happens if”.

We can prepare for various outcomes by listing them. These are the branches of our decision tree. Importantly, there is another step which helps us place the branches in order. It comes from the assessment of likelihood. Seeking the answer delivers some probabilistic thinking.  “How likely is this?” In two simple steps, you’ve escaped the shackles of focusing on one outcome.

Now, you’re considering alternative outcomes and the likelihood of each one occurring.

Would I have invested the effort (and risk) to pick up a pizza given the consideration of the snow compacting on the hill? Given the weather warnings which were being issued all through the day, it would be fair to say the probability of getting stuck on the hill was quite high.

My example is a true story where the decision tree never put an appearance. I made it home with the pizza and the car intact, although the journey took considerably longer and meant the pizza was cold when I returned.

Even without the decision tree, ask: how likely is this? It changes your thought process. You’ll begin to think beyond the outcome and whether it might be optimistic to expect it to happen as you imagine. This one question opens the door to many others—and thinking about the what if’s is a great way to improve your choices.

Written by

Darren Matthews
I'm the founder of The Resolve Blog. Through its articles, newsletter, and tools, The Resolve Blog helps you master your decision-making.

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