The Fear of Making Decisions

Humanity craves but dreads autonomy, Walter Kaufman.

My title and subtitle come from Walter Kaufman’s 1973 book, Without Guilt and Justice, with the subtitle, From Decidophobia to Autonomy. Decidophobia could also be thought of as the fear of Being Wrong, which is the title of a 2010 book by Kathryn Schulz.

Kaufman says: The autonomous individual does not treat his own conclusions and decisions as authoritative but chooses with his eyes open, and then keeps his eyes open. The fear of being wrong causes people to fear deciding. But as Harvey Cox points out, not to decide is to decide. In other words, you can’t avoid making decisions. Making decisions is part of every day life. Which means that you can’t avoid autonomy: the ability to make your own decisions without being controlled by anyone else.

In Being Wrong, English philosopher Roger Bacon was quoted as saying: All error could be chalked up to just four problems: The tendency to cover up one’s own ignorance with the pretense of knowledge; the persuasive power of authority; blind adherence to custom; and the influence of popular opinion. Three hundred years later, Francis Bacon (no relation) called his four sources of human error: The idol of the Tribe, widespread cognitive habits; the idol of the Cave, chauvinism; the idol of the Marketplace, the influence of public opinion; and the idol of the Theater, false doctrines.

The sources of being wrong are varied and found everywhere, coming from both social forces and individual cognitive ones. Nietzsche points out a common individual one: A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.  Decision strategies that preclude uninhibited self-criticism are not helpful.

I can’t help pointing out that having an attitude of positive uncertainty would help in this very popular error. Positive uncertainty would help you to realize that your conviction may not be true. And therefore, in need of review. The fear of making decisions, because you might be wrong, is an erroneous fear, because you can’t avoid deciding. And not to decide could also be wrong.

Because we don’t experience, remember, track, or retain mistakes as a feature of our inner landscape, wrongness always seems to come at us from left field — that is, from outside of us. But reality could hardly be more different. Error is an inside job. Nobody but you can choose to believe your own beliefs, Schutz.

The fear of being wrong, decidophobia, would be a limiting factor in deciding. Decision making is usually risky. It often requires choosing an option that you believe, but do not know for sure, will lead to a desirable outcome.  Deciding cannot be avoided. To decide and not to decide are both decisions, and both could be wrong. What I would recommend, of course, is to decide with positive uncertainty. In this case being wrong is not a catastrophe, because it was always possible and partly expected.

If at first you don’t succeed, you are running about average, M. H. Alderson.

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Believing What You Want to Believe

You don’t get anything worth getting by pretending to know things you don’t know,

Sam Harris.

How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see? Blowin’ In the Wind, Bob Dylan. How many times can politicians or the voters turn their heads? The answer isn’t blowing in the wind; the answer is blowing in modern day politics. Pretending describes Trumpism, the beliefs of the current President of the USA, and his followers. And it is a description of the confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs. The confirmation bias describes our underlying tendency to notice, focus on, and give greater attention to what we already believe — what we want to believe.

Truth is in the I of the beholder. You don’t have to pass a test to prove that what you believe is true. If you believe it is true, then for you, it is true. And what you believe determines what you do. Beliefs become behavior.

I point this out to help explain our current president’s behavior. Trumpism is what the president believes on any particular moment on any particular day about any particular subject, Ron Christie, a republican analyst. And Trumpism explains Donald Trump. What Trump believes any particular moment on any particular day about any particular subject, may not be the same yesterday or tomorrow. And you can’t be sure what Trump believes today by listening to what he says today. Reminder: this is the President of The United States of America, and called “The Leader of the Free World”.

Republicans in Congress pretend President Trump is telling the truth, pretend that he is leading this nation, pretend that he is the man that should continue to lead us in the future. Political skepticism would be a conservative virtue. When will they ever learn?

Right now there isn’t an optimistic answer. If they haven’t learned by now, will they ever learn? The current evidence to unlearn is powerful. The hope is that republicans who are not in Congress (voters) might be learning. And there is recent evidence that even some republicans in Congress are beginning to learn. But don’t expect a complete republican ending to pretending.

Why abandon a belief merely because it ceases to be true?  Robert Frost.

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Trump Does Positive Certainty

One of Trump’s strengths, grows out of the fact that “people hate ambiguity,” and if there is one thing Trump is not, it’s ambiguous, Bicchieri Cristina.

It is obvious that Trump is never uncertain; there is never ambiguity. He is always sure of what he says today. Tomorrow he may change his mind and say something different, but then tomorrow is certain. Things are “true” one day and they are “untrue” the next day, but on both days he will have the same belief of certainty. Doubt doesn’t seem to exist in Trump’s mind. Doubt is the beginning, not the end of wisdom, George Iles.

The reason this works for Trump is that people don’t like uncertainty or ambiguity. Trump is never uncertain. Trump doesn’t say maybe; he says yes or no, one day or another. But the next day, he doesn’t admit he said yes yesterday; it is definitely no today. Some people (Trump supporters) seem to prefer positive certainty over truth. The truth is often tentative, and who wants to be tentative? Truth could be bad news; and who wants bad news?

Trump’s ability to convey certainty, even when saying things that are demonstrably false, is critically important in persuading supporters to believe and vote for him. He is always sure of what he says, when he sends a message, he is always sure, Bicchieri noted. He may change his mind and say “things are black one day and they are white” the next day, but on both days he will have the same strength of certainty.

In an email, Bicchieri cited research that shows: political conservatism being negatively correlated with tolerance to uncertainty. This supports, she said, the general notion that conservative voters would enjoy Trump’s simple ‘certain’ declarations about the world. So what does this mean about the coming election? It means truth will have to prevail.

Will it? During the first three years in office, Trump tallied over 20,000 falsehoods. That was just the beginning. This means that in the coming election Trump will continue with falsehoods; probably with acceleration. This also means that uncertainty needs to become acceptable. The need to know causes people to dislike uncertainty. However, when truth is unlikely, uncertainty is needed. However, people will believe to be true what they want to be true. Trump has remained popular with his voters with falsehoods galore. Can this strategy keep him popular? Maybe.

The leader of the free world needs to be someone who is capable making up their mind by acknowledging uncertainty and the benefit of doubt. Truth matters, but truth may not be known. I don’t think I have to remind my readers of the many benefits of doubt. But I will. To doubt is a method. It gets you to ask questions, to inquire, to wonder. Questions lead to answers; certainty leads nowhere. I think you can say that voting for Trump is voting for someone who never doubts, never is uncertain, and who is always positively certain. Truth is what Trump says it is. So far, Trump is certain about his falsehoods and mis-leading claims. Trump is positive about his certainty. He says a lot of things that aren’t true. He is either lying or ignorant. Which is worse?

Mark Twain Explains Donald Trump:

To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.

The Elephant In The Room: Narcissistic personality disorder.

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And Some Ambiguous Advice

Today’s puzzle is to figure out what to do, when we don’t know what to do.  Jamie Holmes in Nonsense, The Power of Not Knowing, 2015.

 I believe yesterday’s information anxiety is being replaced by today’s ambiguity aversion. The ever-widening gap between what we know and don’t know is the cause. Today, more and more information has meant more and more uncertainty. And what we understand is becoming more and more unclear, indefinite and vague, which resembles the definition of ambiguous: open to more than one interpretation, doubtful or uncertain.

Being doubtful and uncertain is not popular, in spite of my promoting positive uncertainty. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know; and we don’t like not knowing. Ambiguity is defined as: doubtfulness or uncertainty as regards interpretation. Doubtful, uncertain, ambiguous, are not popular with the human mind.

Today, what we understand is becoming harder to understand and you could say  uncertain and ambiguous. Seeing ambiguity and uncertainty as a normal part of life today is liberating, beneficial and non-threatening, and it leads to unlearning and learning. Knowledge, understanding and beliefs are learned and can be unlearned; change happens. Unlearning what we have been taught will be the hard part. People have a hard time giving up what they know. Jamie Holmes reminds us: In an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.

Ambiguity aversion interferes with positive uncertainty. Ambiguity and uncertainty imply  not knowing. Humans have a need to know. When we don’t know what to do (uncertainty), we have a hard time figuring out what to do, to paraphrase Jamie Holmes. Deciding with uncertainty is difficult. This is when it is tempting to pretend we know what to do; and when we need to revisit Mark Twain: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you now for sure that ain’t so.

Since I have been reading and also writing about uncertainty and doubt, this temps me to share some ambiguous advice: Learn To Learn And Then To Unlearn

We must continually unlearn much of what we have learned and learn to learn what we have not been taught. R D Laing

To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.  Lao Tse in the Tao Te Ching

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A Search For Information

Inquiry is fatal to certainty. Will Durant

During the current coronavirus crisis, Donald Trump has answers; Dr. Fauci has questions. Having the answer too soon, as Donald Trump wants, and as Dr. Fauci warns us, is not the best solution. Asking more questions is the best strategy. The surest way to lose the truth is to pretend that you already possess it, Gordon Allport.

Asking questions has always been a virtue of positive uncertainty. Asking questions is being curious. Questions lead to new possibilities, new learning, and to creativity. Certainty leads to nowhere new. Today’s environment is full of questions: personal, social, economic, political, etc. Asking no questions, only giving answers, could be dangerous in today’s environment.

People like certainty, not uncertainty. People like answers, not questions. Today, there is danger in rushing to answers, seeking certainty. I am not a medical, economic, social or political expert. I have studied decision making and believe deciding to answer today’s questions too soon is dangerous. Procrastination sometimes works but isn’t the best answer. Asking questions is. James Ryan says questions are like keys. They can open the mind to new ideas. The fact that inquiry is fatal to certainty explains its virtue. You could also say, certainty is fatal to inquiry.

Open-mindedness is a prerequisite of inquiry. And open-mindedness has been a theme of my writing. A closed mind has no door for questions. This is what sometimes makes closed-mindedness and certainty attractive. Questions get in the way of certainty. But doubt leads to questions. Uncertainty doesn’t feel good; certainty does. Science is a culture of doubt/uncertainty. The scientific method involves hypothesizing, testing and retesting. You could say that science is also a culture of inquiry. The scientific method in a nut shell: Understand and frame the problem, observe; hypothesize (or imagine); test and reduce; and repeat, Maria Konnikova in her book, MASTERMIND, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, 2013.

Science, doubt, uncertainty and inquiry are all related, and part of learning. Certainty is not part of learning. Some synonyms of inquiry: investigation, analysis, examination, research. These are all sources of learning. Science at its best is an open-minded system of inquiry, not a belief system, Robert Sheldrake. Today’s current uncertain environment is full of the need for questions: personal, social, economic, political, etc. Answers put an end to inquiry. Inquiry puts an end to certainty. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science,  Albert Einstein. 

Truth exists, and it is discovered through inquiry.  Asking questions is the result of uncertainty and doubt. My advice: Increase your learning by asking more questions.

 You do not need to be a world-class scientist or artist to appreciate that the world contains mysteries and puzzles, or even to solve some of them. You just need to look around and ask questions. James Ryan

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It Is Genuine Ignorance  

Genuine ignorance is profitable because it leads to humility, curiosity and open-mindedness.   John Dewey

A lot of people are working on the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI).  Not many people are even discussing Genuine Ignorance (GI). I believe ignorance has been getting a bad rap. Perhaps that is because in our culture we believe that intelligence is a good thing to have, even if it’s artificial, and ignorance is a bad thing to have, even if it’s genuine. But if we could promote genuine ignorance as being profitable, it might catch on. In America, being profitable is probably more popular than being intelligent.

William Shakespeare might help: Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise. You probably know that I have doubts, because I have been writing about positive uncertainty for years. I think my Positive Uncertainty could be called: Modest doubt, and therefore considered, the beacon of the wise. My apologies to Shakespeare.

Having a strong opinion with no doubt could be known as the ”I know I’m right” syndrome, which explains why facts don’t change minds. This suggests not only that most people will resist changing their minds, but also that the very people who most need to change them will be least likely to do so. If modest doubt is the beacon of the wise, what does this say about people with the “I know I’m right” syndrome? This could be called “Positive certainty”. Can you imagine what Donald Trump would be like if he ever had a modest doubt? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

The virtue of doubt, ignorance and not knowing is the absence of the “I know I’m right” syndrome; the absence of certainty. Do you sometimes have the ”I know I’m right” syndrome? Or what things don’t you have doubts about? Do you have modest doubt about everything or just some things?  If just some things — what things?

When did we first learn maybe? One of my favorite authors, Katherine Schulz, in her 2010 book Being Wrong, reports that most children grow up living in a yes and no world until about age five, when they learn the word maybe. She says this is the beginning of our ability to acknowledge, quantify and talk about uncertainty; and it marks a major step toward learning. Since then, adults have been creative and resourceful in expressing the concept of maybe: perhaps, probably, hypothetically, doubtful, debatable, sometimes, occasionally, conceivably. Of course I like uncertainty.

You probably know that I have doubts, because I have been writing about positive uncertainty for years. Positive uncertainty could be called: Modest doubt, and therefore be considered another beacon of the wise. My apologies again to Shakespeare.

Everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects. Will Rodgers

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Plan To Take Detours

The shortest distance between two points is always under construction.   Murphy’s Law

 “Life is a journey not a destination” is a well-known saying. But most of us focus on the destination, on where we are heading. Another well-known saying is: “Be careful what you wish for.” Here is what has also been said about life’s destination.

The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes

These quotations suggest that humans are not well-acquainted with where they are headed, their destination. Goals are a description of one’s desired destination, what one wants. One of my favorite sayings is: “Let life be a lesson to you.” This says to me that life’s journey is full of lessons, and means sometimes you need to take detours.

I have been writing about decision making forever. My first paradoxical principle in 1991 was:  Be focused and flexible about what you want. The above quotes support this principle. On your life journey, being flexible will be useful, helping you to discover what you are after. To discover is to learn. To be flexible is to be open to influence, responsive to change.

To believe that life is a journey, not a destination, is to focus on the journey, not the destination. A focus on the destination could cause you to miss the journey; you won’t pause to smell the roses. You won’t even notice the roses. “Take detours.” Explore alternative journeys. Sometimes the objective for your decision might be to find out (to discover) where you want to go. Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not the fish they are after, Henry David Thoreau.

Using goals to govern you is like putting blinders on horses’ eyes. Horses eyes, on the side of their heads, work well for seeing the periphery. Blinders keep them focused on the destination. In the same way, a zoom lens keeps you focused and a wide-angle lens helps you to be flexible. Using goals to govern you is like using a zoom lens. Knowing what you want should be “wide-angle flexible”. Decision making should be as much a process  of discovering goals as achieving goals, James March.

On your life journey, being flexible will be useful, helping you to discover what you are after. To discover is to learn. To be flexible is to be open to influence, responsive to change. Be open to outcome, not attached, Angeles Arrien. One way not to be governed by goals is to follow James March’s recommendation: Treat goals as hypotheses. A hypothesis is an assumption, something taken to be  true for the purpose of investigation. This means two things: you are not sure and you need to explore. Life’s journey is an exploration: to investigate systematically, examine. It is your way of letting life be a lesson to you; a willingness to take detours. Use goals to guide you, not govern you.

What we are seeking so frantically elsewhere may turn out to be the horse we have been riding all along. Harvey Cox.

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Or A Whack On The Side Of The Head

The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. Sometimes people get their ends reversed. When this happens, they need a kick in the seat of their pants. Roger von Oech

This blog is an effort to get you to use the top of your head to create with, and not sit on. From my years of study and teaching in the field of decision making I learned that people often make decisions from the top of their heads or the seat of their pants. Therefore it is appropriate that I borrowed these two techniques from Roger von Oech’s two books, A Whack on the Side of the Head (1982) and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (1986). These ideas were very influential to me during my time presenting and writing.

To get your thoughts out of a rut will require multi-faceted thinking. Roger von Oech lists different types of thinking: logical, conceptual, analytical, speculative, critical, foolish, divergent, convergent, reflective, visual, symbolic, metaphorical, practical, ambiguous, constructive, concrete, and fantasy. Can you add some others? Perhaps intuitive, rational, conservative, liberal, etc. Ask yourself if you use any, many, some or none of these types of thinking.

To expand your thinking, you may need a kick in the seat of the pants, or a whack on the side of your head. Here are some metaphoric roles (as von Oech suggests), each of which embodies a different type of thinking.

Explorer: When you’re searching for information, be an explorer. A good explorer knows that looking for ideas is like prospecting for gold. Poke around in new places. Do you search for information in the same old places? Do you use the same research strategy?

Artist: When you’re turning your resources into new ideas, be an artist. Change contexts, imagine. What if you look at it backwards? Can you make a metaphor? Break the rules? Fool around?  The artist’s role is to transform ideas into something new.

Judge: When you’re evaluating the merits of an idea, be a judge. Judging helps you decide what to do with the idea: implement it, modify it, or discard it. What’s wrong with this idea? What’s right? What if it fails?

How often do you change your thinking style? Can you be a judge, an explorer, an artist sometimes but not always? What are your favorite thinking styles/roles?  What other thinking styles/roles do you play?  What thinking roles or styles do you never play?

What assumptions are you making that could be inhibiting the expansion of your thinking?  What are some inhibiting assumptions you have identified in other people’s thinking? What are your beliefs about creative thinking? About your creative thinking?

Sometimes nothing short of a whack on the side of the head can dislodge the assumptions that keep us thinking more of the same. Roger von Oech

Our thoughts and actions are shaped by a myriad of causes — genetic, environmental and historical. Michael Shermer

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Both Related To Change

The future is uncertain — but its uncertainty is at the very heart of creativity.

Ilya Prigogine

To be creative is to have the ability to create, to cause something to exist; it is an art. To be uncertain is to not be sure, to be open to change. Therefore, it seems you need to be uncertain to be creative. Creativity requires change; change requires uncertainty. Uncertainty results in open-mindedness. I have been writing forever about change, creativity, uncertainty and open-mindedness.

James Adams, in his book, The Care and Feeding of Ideas: A Guide to Encouraging Creativity, 1986, says creativity and change are two sides of the same coin.

They are often linked, in that creativity is needed to respond successfully to change and creativity, in turn, results in change. Creativity and change both imply new directions. They are both associated with uncertainty.

Decision making is, of course, about uncertainty, creativity, open-mindedness — and about change. When deciding what to do, you are deciding about your future. Your future doesn’t exist and it is unpredictable, so it is uncertain; it needs to be created. You have two choices: create it or let someone else create it.

In 1991 I published my book, Creative Decision Making, Using Positive Uncertainty. It was later revised in 2003, with my wife Carol Gelatt as coauthor. Since then, author Sheena Iyengar went one step further in describing creative decision making. Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers, but at its core, choice remains an art, The Art of Choosing, 2010. I would add, a creative art.

This is why open-mindedness is an essential skill. An open mind is a beginner’s mind. A beginner’s mind is a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time. Zen saying. The beginner’s mind is what Zen practitioners use when describing the notion that learning requires an empty cup. When full of what you already know it is hard to acquire new knowledge. A beginner’s mind is trying to discover its ignorance, not to disguise it. This empty cup, beginner’s mind idea is like being child-like. Children don’t know a lot so they learn a lot. They have a beginner’s mind.

You might try thinking like a child. A child hasn’t yet learned rational, adult thinking. Almost all creative thinking techniques, brainstorming for example, involve the abandonment of rational, logical thinking.

An open, beginner’s mind allows us to be receptive to new intelligent thinking processes possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does. Jon Kabat Zinn

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 A Major Step Toward Learning

All of us outgrow some of our beliefs.  Katherine Schulz

 One of my favorite authors, Katherine Schulz, in her 2010 book Being Wrong, reports that most children grow up living in a yes and no world until about age five, when they learn the word maybe. She says this is the beginning of our ability to acknowledge, quantify and talk about uncertainty; and it marks a major step toward learning. Since then, adults have been creative and resourceful in expressing the concept of maybe: perhaps, probably, hypothetically, doubtful, debatable, sometimes, occasionally, conceivably, maybe, uncertain, possible, probable, feasible, likely, conceivable, thinkable, potentially. Of course I like uncertainty.

My writing has probably always been about acknowledging the reality of uncertainty and the powerful role of our beliefs. Therefore, if doubt is the act of challenging our beliefs, I consider this a major benefit. But maybe, doubt and uncertainty have other benefits. They…

  • Prevent the tyranny of certainty.
  • Lead to questions and inquiry.
  • Keep the mind open.
  • Promote vigilance, persistence and skepticism.
  • Are an essential part of being wise.
  • Facilitate learning.

The powerful role of our beliefs is cause for understanding our beliefs. If our beliefs are so powerful, we should know what they are. I believe it is fair to assume that most people don’t  know what they believe. Since beliefs become behavior, looking at one’s behavior is a good way to discover one’s beliefs.

Most of my writing about positive uncertainty is about beliefs. Believing is seeing and beliefs become prophecy. If you can imagine having only yes and no answers, you can see the virtue of maybe. Many times what we know leaves us with a lack of certainty, so we need perhaps, probably, conceivably, debatable, occasionally, etc. Of course I like uncertainty. Certainty does not lead to questions. Maybe, like uncertainty, is a step toward learning because it leads to questions.

Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing. Euripides

 Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers. Voltaire




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