Reflection’s Job is to Help you Make Better Decisions

Joel MacDonald
Jan 10, 2019 · 4 min read

In his book Why Don’t Students Like School, author and cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham says that memory is the residue of thought. What we think about most often is what gets remembered. Put another way, what we repeatedly think about is what we learn. And I would add that reflection is learning too. In her book A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice, author Jennifer Moon defines reflection in this way:

Reflection is a form of mental processing — like a form of thinking — that we may use to fulfil a purpose or to achieve some anticipated outome…

When we reflect we think and when we think we stand a good chance of learning. While there’s a bit more to it than that, it will get us rolling for the rest of this post.

So how does reflection help us become a better decision maker? Reflection is the mediator between knowledge and experience, says Gilbert and Trudel, and is fundamental to all experiential learning theories. Let’s break that down further to show how decision making fits in. First, you have knowledge, or what a person knows. Second, you have experience or what a person has done. But between knowledge and experience comes something else — a decision.

How reflection mediates knowledge and experience via improved decision making

In order to act, we first must decide what to do. We select what to do from what we know. Therefore, reflection mediates knowledge and experience by

1. Assessing the quality of the decision/choice that we made

2. Assessing the quality of the outcome that resulted from that decision/choice

Looking at the quality of the outcome tells us if we got an adequate result as well as if it was what we expected. Looking at the quality of the decision tells us more about our thinking process in that particular context. We need to look at both because it can easily happen that a well thought out decision can completely blow up in our face. Conversely, we can get lucky with a poorly made decision and not get punished at all for it. If we only look at the outcome of our decision, we will be under informed about our ability to both demonstrate our knowledge and experience in that context.

Problem Solving vs Decision Making

Is there a difference? I think so. Problem solving happens when you’re faced with a situation where you don’t have a solution set in place. So, first you have to come up with potential solutions. Next you must weigh the pro’s and con’s of each potential solution, both over the short- and long-term. Then you pick the solution you think is best. And then you put that solution into action.

Decision making, on the other hand, involves a situation that already has a workable solution. In this instance, there is no need to create a new solution set like for problem solving. What is needed is the ability to recognize the context and then select the appropriate existing solution for that context.

New and/or complex situations are problems to be solved. Once they have been solved consistently then they become decisions to be made.

Reflection and emotion

Whether you are solving a problem or making a decision, you cannot escape the power of emotion. Emotion colours our thinking and impacts our decision making. Reflection too cannot escape the grasping effects of emotion. As Mark Manson notes in his post, 5 Principles for Making Better Life Decisions, all tough decisions are essentially about weighing values. Of course our values are our own and susceptible to biases created from a multitude of influences, of which emotion is just one. Suffice to say, we don’t always get it right. As Manson notes:

The fact is, we’ve all been wrong for years. We’re all wrong about our value estimates. And until we can be honest about how wrong we were in the past, we won’t learn to make better value judgments moving into the future.

Yep, we’re all biased. And for that reason any reflection that you perform on yourself (i.e., self-reflection) will only take you so far. Similarly, taking heed of the things mentioned in this post will only do so much. This is where it should be easy to see the value of getting candid feedback from a caring someone else. That person just may be able to help shed some light on an area of your decision making that turns out wasn’t as well lit as you may have thought.

Yes, reflection is the mediator between knowledge and experience. If we wrote a test, for example, we can look at our mark — the outcome — and use that to reflect back on our preparations — the decisions. Or maybe it’s a conversation with a friend who was telling you about a sick family member. You can think back to the verbal and non-verbal things you did — the actions — to see if the decisions you made helped you to be an active listener. Reflection helps us to become a better decision maker.


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