DECIDING ISN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

And Probably Never Was

A person’s ability to choose, as well as his right to choose, is the essence of freedom. How well he learns the skills involved in the process of choosing well determines his power of self-determination, his freedom of choice. Paul Woodring, 1957

I believe it is hard to think of many things in life that are more important than decision making. But we are never taught how to decide. Growing up we are required to learn reading, writing, math, science and history — but not decision making. I spent most of my professional life (over 50 years) trying to change that. Yet today I don’t think many, if any, public schools have such a requirement, although decision making workshops are sometimes offered to adults.

During all those 50 years, much has been learned about the process of deciding. Two Nobel Prizes have been awarded for new knowledge in making up one’s mind.

  • In today’s complex world individuals cannot possibly process or even obtain all the information they need to make fully rational decisions (1978, Herbert Simon, Bonded Rationality). However, many don’t yet accept that.
  • Human decision-making under uncertainty, left to its own devises, is apt to engage in a number of fallacies and systematic errors, so if we want to make better decisions in our personal lives and as a society, we ought to be aware of these biases and seek workarounds (2002, Daniel Kahneman, Prospect Theory). Self-awareness of personal biases is not yet very common.
  • And James March, of Stanford, pointed out: Human choice behavior is at least as much a process for discovering goals as for acting on them. If you always know what you want, how do you ever find new wants? Making decisions can be for the purpose to discover as well as to achieve.

My takeaway from all of this: Decision making isn’t what it use to be — and probably never was. We are finally realizing that in today’s complex, constantly changing, risky  reality humans are not well equipped to make rational, logical, coherent decisions We are not as rational and coherent as we think we are. And the world is not as rational and coherent as we think it is. Once again this means self-awareness is the key. Not just being aware of, but understanding our biases, our decision fallacies and our systematic errors. This has been the theme of my Process of Illumination and Positive Uncertainty writing.

We now know that we employ two types of decision processes: intuitive thinking, which comes from our experience and expertise and rational thinking which comes from decision rules and prescribed procedures, called Type 1 and Type 2 by Daniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011. Bottom line: We need to understand that we are seldom rational decision makers and we need to seek workarounds (workaround: a plan or method to circumvent a problem). We need creative strategies for overcoming our decision making limitations.

What you decide and how you decide is up to you. Because: You can’t avoid decision making because Not to decide is to decide (Harvey Cox). Your right to decide may be  determined by something else; your ability to decide is usually determined by you.

Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers, but at its core, choice remains an art.  Sheena Iyengar, in The Art of Choosing, 2010

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