How Did You Learn It?

Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers, but at its core, choice remains an art.      Sheena Iyengar

Many years ago we learned that the individual’s ability to choose is faulty. Three Noble Prizes have been awarded for explaining: In today’s complex world individuals cannot possibly process or even obtain all the information they need to make fully rational decisions, Herbert Simon. Today, in the age of Internet technology and Big Data, making fully rational decisions is more difficult because of more information and more knowledge about the decision making process.

What is now known and recommended about the process of choosing has changed dramatically over the 50 years I have been studying and writing about decision making. Following are some random thoughts about some of these changes:

  • The significant role of the unconscious is now recognized and accepted.
  • Through modern brain research we are learning about its contribution.
  • The mind is sometimes intuitive, impulsive, emotional and complacent.
  • The mind is sometimes rational, deliberate, a calculator, and a planner.
  • Over 70 cognitive biases have been identified.
  • The literature on nudge, default rules, heuristics, and habits is enlightening.
  • Government intervention into the right of citizens to choose is increasing.
  • We still do not fully understand human consciousness.
  • We are learning about the impact that Big Data is having.
  • Our economic imbalance has affects on the right and ability to choose.

These changes make me wonder: Will this new increased understanding of decision making make us better at it? Actually these changes make me remember that those in charge of education have never thought it was necessary, or even important, to teach students how to make good decisions. Reading, driving a car, and decision making are generally agreed to be important human skills. Reading and driving a car are taught in public schools; decision making is not.

This has been my frustration since 1964 because my doctoral dissertation was about teaching decision making to students. My efforts since, to have decision making a required course in high school, have not succeeded. Maybe decision making is like learning to walk. You don’t get lessons, so you learn by trial and error. I predict that in the long run, although rational decision making will be the goal, choosing will continue to be a creative art, learning by doing.

Isn’t it interesting that for all my years of “teaching” decision making, I am now suggesting it may be something we learn by doing, by trial and error? Learning decision making by doing may mean making artful mistakes, and learning from them.

Life is the art of drawing without an eraser. John Gardner





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  1. Marianne says:

    All of the data available now really seems to cause more confusion in decision making. Also, we have been told so many untruths, well we are just realizing all the untruths, by government as well as business, that it is almost impossible to make a decision from current information we read or hear. So, as you wrote, maybe we are stuck with trial and error. Also I have found over the years that people often can be told how to do something, but often they have to try things out for themselves. Another slap at the possibility of being viewed as the wise older person, younger people aren’t interested in our wisdom–have to try it themselves. Sigh!

  2. Eugene Unger says:

    I agree with your last sentence. Do Something ! Then evaluate and do something. We will never have all the data. Overwhelmed by data is more like it. My Mantra ” Trust and go”



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