tips for better family decision-making based on science

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This Thanksgiving is an unusual one. For many of us, drinking, dining, and chatting—all of Thanksgiving’s cherished rituals—are happening over the phone or on video chat.

Catching up, swapping stories, and sharing memories may not feel the same this year. But tools like illumy at least make it possible to connect and maintain the spirit of the season.

What about big family decisions — can they still happen in virtual space? We think so—and we’ve uncovered some neuroscience tips for your most important (virtual) conversations.

set “superordinate” goals

Superordinate simply refers to the practice of setting aside differences to achieve things together. Essentially, a superordinate goal is one that every member of the decision-making unit agrees is important and worth working toward.

One of the most famous applications of superordinate goals was a study conducted in the 1950s called the Robbers Cave Experiment. Two groups of fifth-grade campers were divided into teams and encouraged to compete against each other in sporting events and other activities. Conflicts between the teams and prejudices arose, provoked by the people conducting the experiment. But when the two teams were tasked with big, important objectives (like improving the camp’s water supply), the children were willing to collaborate.

Conflicts arise all the time due to built-in biases, clashing personalities, or long-simmering disagreements. Superordinate goal-setting doesn’t require people to change who they are. Instead, it’s about the goals themselves being seen as valuable.

The takeaway: Set clear objectives with your family unit—goals that everyone involved can agree upon.

create a space where everyone feels safe

To get in a position to make smart group decisions, participants should feel that they are on a level playing field. In other words, everyone should feel safe stating their opinions and responding to others’ statements. What’s the secret to safe spaces? Harvard Business Review suggests that they have three elements:

1. Only goals and strategies, not individuals, are criticized.
2. Comments are made in the form of suggestions instead of orders.
3. Feedback is expressed gently and thoughtfully

An illumy group chat can make a great safe space. Yet the key is having the right attitudes. Safe spaces are more about mutually reinforcing practices than the spaces themselves.

The takeaway: Adopt a tone of mutual respect, criticize constructively, and avoid personal attacks.

strive to balance perspectives

In some families, the parents make all the decisions. In other families, children have lots of autonomy from a young age. Research shows, though, that neither of these approaches is optimal.

Instead, the best outcomes—at least as measured by children’s performance at school—come about when decision-making is shared.

A study conducted at Stanford University in 1990 found that kids’ academic performance suffers both when the parents are the decision-makers and when the children are solely responsible for their actions. “Joint decision making,” on the other hand, “tended to be linked with greater effort and higher grades.”

The takeaway: Make every effort to give young family members a voice in important family decisions, but don’t leave them all on their own. Maintain a healthy balance.

Allow plenty of time for action

Humans tend to err on the side of optimism in many situations. Even smart folks aren’t immune:

One important thing we overestimate is our ability to act quickly in groups. That leads us to underestimate how long projects take to complete. This phenomenon is called the “planning fallacy,” and it’s been explored extensively since the late 1970s.

What makes the planning fallacy interesting is not just that groups are overly optimistic about their abilities — it’s that they maintain their optimism even in the face of mounting evidence that it might be misplaced.

There’s nothing wrong with being optimistic. But it’s just as important to be realistic, particularly when it comes to achieving things at the group level.

The takeaway: When setting big goals, such as finding and moving to a new home, consider budgeting more time than you think you’ll need. Your initial expectation is probably too optimistic!

Photo by avishek Udas on Unsplash.

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