Calculating Good Life Choices

Wish you could get decision-making down to a science? University of Illinois professor Ali Abbas is a leader in the decision analysis field and has created a social website called Ahoona that breaks down theory and practice for its users to make quality life choices. He joins us.

Read an interview with Abbas.

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Ali AbbasWhat is decision analysis? 

This is a methodology that helps you make good decisions even if you are uncertain of the outcome. It doesn’t guarantee you the best outcome, but good decision-making involves many elements to help you think clearly.

The elements for better decision quality include identifying the alternatives (what you can do instead) and preferences, or what you like. It’s also important to think about pros and cons you face and uncertainty; we forget this usually. Information is also important. We are so fortunate now to have so much information available through the web so taking time to weigh information is critical. And finally, the bigger picture; you have to make sure you are thinking about the right problem. For instance, one may ask what grad school to choose. In one frame, it’s which school? The bigger picture is: should you go to school or get a job? Is helping in the family business an option?

Tell me about the Ahoona website.

I went to Stanford and began studying decision analysis. I was there for electrical engineering but I took the decision-making elective and got hooked on the topic. I realized that schools don’t teach it in a way that extends to daily life, and it is usually higher level college or grad school courses. So I work on bringing the education –the theoretical elements– and turn it into practical application. I also volunteer at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center and see how people can learn from decision analysis. By trying to make decision analysis fun and second-nature by putting it in the frame of a social network, users spend time evaluating the steps leading to a decision and become better at making quality decisions.

You compare decision-making to a calculator?

Absolutely. Traditionally, the decision analysis classes focuses on quantification – probability, distributions and utility values. But we have made that so simple and intuitive on Ahoona website that you don’t realize it is happening. The calculation happens on the back end. If your question is straight forward, then it is easy and you arrive at a decision quickly on the site. If you have uncertainty, there is a process the site guides you through.

Typically, decision analysis is not taught in the U.S. until college or beyond?

Yes. Think about how fast social media has spread. Young people are on social networks all the time. But if you have a network that you spend a lot of time on and you become a better decision maker in the process, it can impact your life. Like high school students– if we can catch them at that age where they are about to make big life choices (college, career) and we are confident we can reach out in a meaningful way, then we can influence societal decision-making that way.

What features on the site do users have access to?

When you post a decision on the site, first we give the option of posting anonymously and who can see it: the whole community, just your friends, or only yourself. If you choose to share a decision publicly, everyone can see it. This option is good because it allows people to add certain aspects of decision quality you may not have thought about. For instance, people tend to not think clearly about preferences or alternatives they face. By posting publicly, you can identify more. Sometimes in daily decision, it’s not analysis that is the crucial element but finding those aspects that help you make better decisions. You can get feedback from the network or peers, or click to find similar posts where you can see similar stories people have posted. Now, I can click on those and suddenly I have someone with same decision, pro, cons and uncertainties. While it is different, at least they have posted all pros, cons and uncertainties, and I have access to that.

Anything you post publicly, you are helping someone facing a similar decision in the future. We now have a database that has these stored so you don’t have to wait for feedback. It will walk you through a decision engine that will guide you through making your decision and run you through the analysis. It’s getting good input for the calculator through friends, peers, and giving historic inputs to run through analysis step by step.

     What are the benefits of peer discussion?

It is designed to be very objective. If I went on a social network and asked a question, they will tell you something but not tell you why, or lay out the pros and cons. This way, you are not just asking for ideas but also pros, cons and uncertainties. Other people can offer alternatives or other uncertainties that you have not thought of. Then, you get to choose what to include in your analysis. For the example of asking where to go for a honeymoon, someone might have a preference for staying in the U.S., but if it doesn’t apply to you, you can leave it out. So it creates a lot of objectivity, and you can capture different parts of discussions and elements.

Universities will be using the site in classrooms?

I would say about 30 percent of the site users are college students right now. It was somewhat expected because they are more active on social networks and are used to posting.

I use here at Illinois, and it is a fun way to learn while doing, apart from the lectures. My students have already been trained on decision analysis. Everyone posts a question about what choices they are facing. Teams then give alternatives and can post on the site. This does not take math knowledge but they get better at coming up with alternatives for decision-making. This type of thinking is what we want to get better at that will help us be better decision makers. Students were doing it for eight weeks even before the analysis, and they were better at giving decision elements. For the sample question of how to impress your girlfriend’s mother, the bigger picture was posed: Do you try to impress her father? Do you want to impress her mother? Do you plan to marry the daughter? Bigger picture is a great part. By getting better at providing elements, you will improve in decision-making in general.

Can you give me an example of how the site has helped your students or a particular user?

There was a student I bumped into last week; she asked if she should stay an extra semester and get an extra minor. After getting comments, she decided to stay on the extra semester and is very happy she did. One user asked about what tablet to buy and posted his questions. Later, he posted that he received solid feedback and is happy with the tablet he got.

Another example: a user asked, “Should I sue my neighbor for the noise they make or move out?” He lived in a studio apartment. He received a significant amount of feedback. Others wrote, “Have you considered writing a letter or having a conversation that might change this into a positive relationship?” We tend to ask this or that type questions but there are many other options that can help in making a decision.

Have you discovered any trends that are interesting or that have reaffirmed your work in decision analysis?

Definitely. One is that people fill in alternatives, but they don’t fill in a lot and they fill in very few preferences. For the girlfriend’s mother question, no preferences were included at all. If you have a dilemma, sometimes people don’t even think about what they really like. Usually there is not enough bigger picture elements too. Right now, we are working on how we ask the questions to generate more responses from the user and a way to organize data. This is incredible because a lot of experiments on decision-making are done in a lab in a controlled environment. This is not controlled, it is everyday life, and we are letting the world shape how it progresses.

Another thought – when you think about what is on the internet, we have incredible search engines. But the engines only give you information and some alternatives but not preferences. We don’t even have technology today that offers you preferences in addition to the info or alternatives and uncertainties. It is more what data search engines provide, but not what you really want as an individual. That is the missing element.

You are working to target teens?

We want to reach out to teens eventually. It is good to start with college campuses because we can see if there are any bugs or issues to fix. If we can get people in the habit of sharing experiences and decisions, it is worthwhile if even one person can avoid a bad decision.

You mentioned you work with teens at the nearby juvenile detention center – how do you help them?

This was an effort that started in 2004. We went several times to talk about decision-making with teens at the juvenile detention center in Champaign. It was interesting because many of them say, “Well, you talk about decision-making but we have no decisions to make here.” But they do. I asked them why they came to class. “Well, I need the letter for the judge. If I didn’t come to class today, I wouldn’t get a letter written.” Then I asked what they would do when they got out of the center, and they said they would not hang out with the friends who shoplift or get into trouble. So they make all types of decisions every day but aren’t aware.

Have they used the site?

They have not yet. What I hope, now that the site has been refined and made easy to use, I hope to reach out again. The counselors were trained and I hope to reach out again to the JDC about how they can use the site, and how teens are making decisions and how to build community efforts. I am imagining that one day, if someone is bullied and finds 10 people that have been bullied on the site, they will say, “OK, I’m not alone in this.” If that can help someone, it would be worth it.

What about tough questions like abuse or kids in gangs?

We would embrace that. Just before I left Stanford, we volunteered at the decision-making foundation and we asked the people at the center, why are you here? The team leader said, “I was driving and this guy stopped and looked at me funny. When we were at the light, I beat him up, then I drove off.” When I asked about the decisions he made there, he looked at me funny. “The other guy called the cops and the cops put me here,” is what he responded.  But actually, he had a lot of decisions and he needed to ask questions: Was the guy looking at him funny? Maybe he misinterpreted? You chose to beat him up. You chose to drive off. It’s not just about other people’s decisions but how you react to the situation and the site can help with that.

Currently, there are a lot of questions regarding college, owning a business, buying gadgets, taking vacations. Is there a worry that the site is for the more affluent?

That is a great thought. Because you know how you spread the word to people you know? From volunteering, we want to reach out to those in need of help for making decisions. If we can influence their decision-making, that would be great. This is for the whole of society – people in India, Thailand, Australia, throughout Europe. We would like this to be global. The methodology doesn’t change. If we can provide the platform to make better decisions, that would be great. We haven’t created alerts yet for serious issues like suicide or abuse, but we want to add them to get people help for things like that. And nothing is edited on the site. There is no censoring or editing because this is for the whole world.

You also teach decision-making workshops and have one with NASA soon?

Yes. The NASA one is in March and sponsored by the National Science Foundation. They are sending 30 engineers and managers, and it will focus on how to make good decisions in design. The elements of decision quality are the start. You would be surprised that, in asking people or managers what you want to accomplish or what is the organization’s mission, they are not clear on that. Based on preferences, this needs to be optimized. Whether it’s government, organizations or managers of a business, the methodology is pretty much the same. Ahoona walks you through step by step. For those with more advanced math skills, we show them more of the process and calculations that happen on the back end of the site.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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