The 37 percent rule
How to make better decisions, according to math. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
I couldn’t decide what to share today, but then, ironically, I realized that my friend and colleague Jess Stillman had something good to share about how to make good decisions. It sounded like fate. Here’s Jess.
Decisions, with math
by Jessica Stillman
Inside every major decision there lives at least another one other smaller decision. Namely: When do you stop gathering information, and decide that you have enough data to make a choice?
Spend too long probing your options and you fall prey to analysis paralysis or let promising opportunities go by.
But, close out the process too quickly, and you risk regretting options you never considered.
It’s true whether you're looking for a spouse or trying to make a decision in business. How do you decide when to explore further, and when to pull the trigger on a choice?
Well, what if I told you that there’s a single, mathematically derived answer to this question no matter what domain your decision falls in? And then, what if I told you that it involved an oddly specific number: 37 percent.
Doing the math
Let’s use the example of one of the most consequential decisions many of us make: How do you choose a spouse?
It does seem strange to think that there would be a right answer to the question: How long do I keep exploring my options? Surely, you should test the waters longer than if you're making an inconsequential business decision, like choosing a new swag supplier.
But, as writer Jonny Thomson explained on Big Think, no matter what choice you're trying to make, mathematicians claim the 37 percent rule applies. Here it is in a nutshell:
Spend the first 37 percent of your decision-making process gathering information and committing to nothing.
Then, choose the next option that comes along that's better than everything you've seen before.
This oddly precise recommendation actually has a formula behind it. The mathematically inclined among us can check out a more detailed explanation here. But in short, mathematicians insist this 37 percent rule gives you the highest probability of making the optimum choice.
Applying a precise rule to messy reality
Applying this rule will look different in different situations, of course.
If you've given yourself a month to look at real estate, the 37 percent rule suggests you spend the first third or so of that surveying the market and making no decisions.
If you're hiring an assistant and plan to interview 10 candidates, let the first three go by. Then choose the next person who beats that first bunch.
If you're hoping to be settled down by 40 and start dating in high school, take the first third of your dating life—up to around age 25—to casually check out your options.
Now, perhaps you have objections. What if an absolutely stellar candidate (or romantic interest or real estate play) just happens to be the first one you come across?
Follow the 37 percent rule, pass that person buy, and you might end up spending your life cursing math and wondering, "What if?"
Well, it’s true that matters of the heart aren't always logical, and this rule only maximizes probabilities. It doesn't guarantee success. So if lightning strikes or the angels sing and you're absolutely sure you've found the perfect match for you, don't let abstract formulas stand in the way.
(Though do think back to how sure you were that your high school crush was The One, and approach infatuation with an appropriate degree of skepticism.)
But even if it's unwise to blindly follow the 37 percent rule in every instance, that doesn't make it invalid or unhelpful.
Knowing that spending roughly the first third of your decision-making process gathering information is generally optimal can help you resist both FOMO and analysis paralysis.
Knowing that you should snap up the first candidate who beats the options you previously explored can help you muster the courage to pull the trigger.
And knowing that mathematicians somewhere have figured out a way—at least a better way than the haphazard one we might use otherwise—to balance exploration and decisiveness?
That’s just the kind of crazy, precise tip worth sharing.
7 other things worth knowing today
The tumultuous saga of Elon Musk’s on-again off-again purchase of Twitter took a turn toward a conclusion Tuesday after the mercurial Tesla CEO proposed to buy the company at the originally agreed-on price of $44 billion. It came less than two weeks before a trial between the two parties is scheduled to start in Delaware. (AP)
Scientists Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics for experiments in quantum mechanics that laid the groundwork for rapidly-developing new applications in computing and cryptography. I first started this work back in 1969 and I'm happy to still be alive to be able to get the prize," said Clauser, 79. (Reuters)
Aaron Judge is the American League’s all-time single-season home run king, and the most in baseball since the steroid era. The New York Yankees superstar surpassed Roger Maris with his 62nd homer of 2022, a leadoff blast against the Texas Rangers in the penultimate game of the season on Tuesday. (Yahoo Sports)
About a quarter of students in an organic chemistry class at New York University signed a petition against their renowned 84-year-old professor, claiming the class was simply too hard. NYU responded by letting the students withdraw from the class, and firing the professor. (NYT)
Alaska, New Mexico, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana have the highest rates of murder, rape and other violent crimes in the United States, while Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have the lowest, according to a study released this week. (My home state of New Jersey fared quite well: 5th lowest; they’re all listed.) (Daily Mail)
Large swathes of Bangladesh were left without electricity on Tuesday after a partial grid failure, a government official said, adding that authorities were working to gradually restore power supply in the country of 168 million people. The country’s power grid malfunctioned around 2 p.m. (4 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, leading to blackouts across 75-80% of the country. (CNN)
A huge and ancient estate in the U.K. countryside with ties to the royal family and a history that extends as far back as Medieval England has gone on the market for the first time in 700 years. Asking price: £30 million (US$32.1 million). (Mansion Global)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay. A version of Jessica’s essay appeared previously at Inc.com. See you in the comments!