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Make Better Decisions by Ditching your “Default Alternative” – by Ian Moore

Ian Moore

Ian Moore

Our brains have developed over hundreds of thousands of years and our evolution has allowed it to make some decisions very rapidly. This development has a Catch 22 when it comes to making decisions. For survival purposes our brains have developed very useful mechanisms however these very mechanisms can cause real issues when making business decisions.

One of the mechanisms that the brain has developed is what I like to call the ‘default alternative’. In order to make decisions easily and quickly we have developed this way of thinking so that our brains do not have to process too much information. We all have our own ‘default alternatives’, both entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs, however I believe that entrepreneurs have a mental ability to switch their ‘default alternative’ off (at least temporarily and in some situations). The good news for all of us is that by understanding our own ‘default alternatives’ we can learn to switch them off when we need to.

So what is a ‘default alternative’? The following picture of an escalator is one example:

escalator-and-stairs - finding your default alternative

The ‘default alternative’ for all but one person is ‘take the escalator’ even though the stairs are not very long and it means waiting in a queue.

You can also see this effect when people are going through doors to a shop or an office building. People coming in and out of a door will queue and fight each other to get through the door that is already open rather than opening one of the other doors.

Another example is the ‘sand pit’. In this example someone has buried a bag of gold in a sand pit. You are given a shovel but are only allowed to dig in one spot. You do not know how many people have been digging in the sand pit before you.

The next diagram is of the sand pit as viewed from above. Remember the first place you think of to dig:

empty sandpit

When you have selected a spot to dig look at the diagram at the end of this artcile. Did you dig in the green area? The vast majority of people do.

This is not a good decision given the situation. If everyone digs in the green shaded area and a lot of people have dug in the sand pit before then your chance of finding the gold is very slim indeed. You will also notice that the green shaded area is a lot smaller than the rest of the sand pit.

When I have observed entrepreneurs of all ages, I have noticed that they have a tendency to reject their ‘default alternatives’ more often than other people.

Historically the ‘default alternative’ for ‘how do I make enough money to survive’ has been ‘get a job’. In recent years this has started to change. Government initiatives in schools and for the rest of the population have introduced into people’s psyche that a possibility is ‘do it for yourself’. Other influences in society have made this idea easier to implement. Easily affordable computers and telecoms make it very easy to work from home. Ebay has significantly simplified the ‘route to market’ for many people (and we have all heard stories of people who have made significant amounts of money on Ebay).

Whether you are an entrepreneur or not, being aware of your own ‘default alternatives’ is a great way of improving your opportunities and your life. To try this out for yourself simply try spotting your own (and other people’s) ‘default alternatives’ over the next week. Once sensitised to them you will find a world of opportunities opening up for you.

Where the vast majority of people choose to dig:

digging the sandpit

Ian Moore runs workshops and gives presentations on how people and organisations can improve their Decision Making by understanding how they make poor ones. For more information see:
As part of the Academy Community, professional speakers such as Ian provide excellent, practical and, in many cases, hard-hitting topics for Managing Directors and CEOs.  They know that by inspiring the leader of a business to change his or her thinking and to help them motivate themselves and their people for the future, they will develop and grow their companies.  For more information visit
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