Thursday, May 16, 2013

Most decisions are binary: yes or no?

I find reminding myself of this fact. It makes decisions a lot easier.
It may also help in influencing decision makers.

These days I have to make many decisions:
Should this paper be published in PRL?
Should this person get a grant?
Should this person get tenure?
Should I interview this person for a postdoc?
Should this student be allowed to continue their Ph.D?

Making these decisions can consume large amounts of time and energy.
However, I have found it is important and somewhat liberating to sharpen the decision down to a simple yes/no question. It is easy to get distracted from this.

For example when reviewing a grant application it is easy to get distracted by secondary questions:
Does this young applicant deserve to get a grant?
Is the applicants last paper valid, important and significant?
How much should I let citations influence my decision?
Is the budget reasonable and realistic?

But the real question is more like:
Given the competition, the funds available, and the goals and criteria of the funding agency should I recommend the person get a grant?
The answer to that can often be decided very quickly. I don't have to research all the scientific subtleties behind the proposed project or wade through the budget details or fluff about impact factors and committee service....
Furthermore, once I have the yes/no answer I don't see the need to write a long and detailed report justifying it. The decision makers (at the next stage) reading my report are mostly interested in the yes/no not the subtleties behind it.

I don't deny that the answers to secondary questions influence the yes/no answer to the primary question. But, I have found it is easy to get to distracted by them.

I also find this focus on the binary character of decisions helps in trying to influence the decisions that affect me. It particularly affects how much time I spend on "preparing my case." 

Suppose I want to get a travel grant which has a 70 per cent success rate. All I care about is whether I get the grant. Yes/no. Whether my proposal is highly ranked or is appreciated because it contains a beautiful literature review is really irrelevant.

Suppose I want an editor at PRL to accept my paper after some critical referee reports. I don't really care if the editor thinks I have given a particularly cogent response to all of the criticisms (e.g. three different counter arguments for each criticism). I just want the editor to be convinced that it is o.k. to publish the paper, even if she/he has misgivings.

I welcome your thoughts. Am I ruthless and superficial? Is this a helpful idea?

1 comment:

  1. Am I ruthless and superficial?

    Is this a helpful idea?