Remove the middle option

Recently I was talking to a friend who’s thinking about getting a car and wanted to get my thoughts on leasing for 3–5 years vs buying/financing. As it happened, I have also been thinking about getting a car, and I’d already decided that I wanted to lease because for the car I wanted to get, I didn’t want to own it for the long-term.

(This is a post about decision-making, not personal finances.)

I told my friend to remove the “mid-range” timescale and think of it this way: if you had to choose, would you want to get this car for 3 years and then replace it, or hold onto it for more than 8 years? “3 years”, my friend replied.

By removing the middle option (the “mid-range” 5-ish years in this case), it forces a clearer choice. Generalized: if you’re trying to decide between two choices, pick a high-signal comparison dimension, eliminate the middle of the range, and decide which end you prefer. You can also do this pairwise or bracket-style among more than two choices.

“Meh” is not an answer.

At work, we use this technique when scoring candidates’ interviews — we input interview scores along each of a handful of attributes that we care about. The software we use offers 5 options for each dimension, but we avoid the middle option for each dimension, forcing evaluators to come down on the side of “yes” or “no”.

The middle option might not literally be in the middle. One example popularized by Tim Ferriss is to describe something on a scale of 1–10 without using 7 — you’d be forced to answer with either a 6-or-lower, which is generally “bad”, or an 8-or-higher, which is generally “good”. Removing the “meh” option leads to a clearer, more informative decision.

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