Or By The Seat Of The Pants

By the book: Strictly according to the rules; exactly following procedure.

By the seat of the pantsBased on experience, instinct or guesswork,  rather than a plan or method.

Decision making isn’t what it used to be. And maybe never was. I have spent the last 50 plus years reading and writing about decision rules. My first article on decision making  was published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology (1962, V.9, No.3). It was decision making “by the book”, strictly following the decision rules I had read in books. I gradually changed my mind and 27 years later I published a second article called “Positive Uncertainty” in the same Journal (1989, V36. No2); it was not by the book. It involved the non-rational, intuitive, uncertain aspects of decision making.

Between 1962 and 2017 decision making has been a popular topic for offering expert advice. I have played my part. And I have read most of other’s advice. During that time rational decision making went out the window (or out of the book). It has become more like deciding by “the seat of the pants”, “the top of the head”, or by rules of thumb.

Rule of thumb: A homemade recipe for making a guess. An easy-to-remember guide that falls somewhere between a mathematical formula and a shot in the dark, Tom Parker. This blog is describing the shift from “book rules” to “thumb rules” in the decision making process.

Two Nobel Prize winners, Herbert Simon, 1978 and David Kahneman, 2002 have made it clear that human decision making is not, and probably cannot be, totally rational. Rational: decision making that is consciously analytic; nonrational: decision making that is intuitive and judgmental; irrational: decision making that responds to the emotions or deviates from action chosen rationally.

During my writing I have promoted a lot of nonrational and irrational decision making strategies. For example: A whack on the side of the head and A kick in the seat of the pants, (Roger von Oech). Mess Management, (Russell Ackoff). Metaphor as method, (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson). And some of my more recent blogs: Decision Making Without A Recipe; Be Focused And Flexible; The Art Of Deciding; The Illusion Of Objectivity, to name a few.

The reason for this shift, in my opinion, is recognition of the power of personal beliefs in decision making. Beliefs are an important part of our human consciousness, which has been called “the hard problem of science”. Human consciousness is central to the process of making decisions and science doesn’t know human consciousness. The human belief system (the subjectivity of consciousness) is what drives decision making away from “by the book” toward “by the seat of the pants”. This will be the subject of my next blog. Stay tuned.



This entry was posted in Beliefs. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Carl Thoresen says:

    HI HB,

    Can you send me a copy of “By the Seat of Your Pants” ASAP on
    a 8 by 11 format? I want to distribute to a group I lead here
    at the Terraces on Wed. I especially think it’s essential for folks over
    70 on up. Looking forward to seeing you this coming Friday at 1:00pm.

    ciao bella


  2. Eugene Unger says:

    We will decide where to eat breakfast ” by the buds on our tongues” I can taste the Apricot French toast already ”



  3. Isabelle Leon says:

    This was quite a mouthful. It is confession time, I guess. I look forward to the next chapter.

    Sent from my iPad


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