Alternative Futures: What’s at Stake With Each Decision

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thinking in Bets" by Annie Duke. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are alternative futures? Do you consider them when you make decisions?

Whenever you make a decision, you’re choosing between alternative futures—outcomes that result from particular decisions. To make better decisions, you should adopt an “alternative futures” mindset.

Keep reading to learn about thinking in terms of alternative futures.

Betting Against the Future

Betting involves a degree of risk, usually financial. There’s something at stake for you. The same is true of most of the decisions you make in your life. You’re choosing between “alternative futures,” as Duke puts it, and betting that you’ll be happier in one future than the other. 

When you decide to move to a new neighborhood, you’re making a bet in which you hope to gain something (an easier commute to work, closeness to friends or relatives, a house that better suits your family’s needs). If it doesn’t work out in your favor (your new neighbors are loud, the house needs more renovation than you thought, construction begins on the next street and forces you to take a different route to work), then you’ve lost not only those potential rewards, but also the option to stay in your old home. You could wind up better off, but you could also end up worse off.

Extend this “alternative futures” thinking to your other day-to-day choices. A choice to exercise every week is partly about choosing a healthier future. A choice to travel around the world is partly about choosing a future of adventure and broadened horizons. A choice to get married is partly about choosing a future with one specific person over any number of alternative futures with other people. 

But you’re not only choosing a different future. You’re choosing a different version of yourself: the self that you could become if you advance your career, start a family, or leave behind your material possessions and spend a year globe-trotting. Your life could branch out in any number of directions, but when you make one choice, you leave behind others. Considering alternative futures is a key aspect to sound decision-making.

Alternative Futures: What’s at Stake With Each Decision

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  • How to get better at making good decisions
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  • How to evaluate and learn from your past

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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