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.



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That Is Not The Question


Not to decide is to decide. Harvey Cox

If you decide not to decide, you are still making a decision. If you don’t make up your mind, that is a decision to not make up your mind. And sometimes it works; procrastination sometimes turns out well. The real question of course is: How to decide?

Advice about how to decide has been around for many years; and a lot of it. However, it has never been considered important enough to teach in schools. We expect children to learn how to decide like they learn how to walk. Children learn how to walk before they go to school. Good walkers are easy to identify. If children learn how to decide before they go to school, how do we identify good or poor decision making children?  Or do we care? We offer decision making courses for adults but not for children.

But maybe the problem with decision making today is that no one is sure how to decide. Most of the decision making advice of the past is now obsolete, including my own. Once considered totally rational, then considered either rational or emotional, now considered partly non rational, emotional, intuitive and somewhat rational. This new, creative, multi-part decision making system is being characterized by various terms: thinking fast and slow; system 1 and system 2; switch; ambiguity; the art of choosing; the elephant and the rider, a growth mindset; positive uncertainty; the juggling act; bonded rationality; complexity matching.

Decision making is a human cognitive process, involving the brain, the mind, consciousness, the maturation of the physical and the accumulation of experience. Herein lies the problem. Learning to decide while growing up, and as an adult, involves the acquisition of personal beliefs and cognitive biases. This provides each of us with our point of view, our subjectivity. We learn our cognitive biases the same way we learn our culture and to speak the language we most often hear. We learn decision making from personally acquired experience.

Experience isn’t always the best teacher. And maybe a decision making curriculum won’t be the best teacher. Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers, but at its core, choice remains an art, Sheena Iyengar. This is one of my favorite quotations about decision making. But I am not sure what it tells us about learning to decide. Lessons are offered to become more skillful artists so what would lessons look like to become more skillful artistic deciders?

The question remains: How do we help children, students and adults become more skillful artistic decision makers? Although I continue to offer advice about better decision making, along with many others, I’m not sure this advice is better than learning from experience.


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To Abandon Democracy In America?

It only takes one, if the one is the President of the United States

 The American political system relies on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency. But congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president. The current political administration of America has been authoritarian rule. it seems less like a democracy and more like a dictatorship. In today’s U. S. politics, Checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism (James Russell Lowell). What excites this president is his approval rating, his wealth, his power. He is ignoring our democratic values of equality, diversity, truth and common good. Today’s democracy is not of the people, by the people and for the people. Today’s politics is of the president, by the president and for the president. ‘“I alone can fix it.”


To Reestablish Democracy In America?

It only takes a majority, but the majority has to want to.

Democracy doesn’t seem to be happening. Or maybe it never did. Democracy is when the common people are considered as the primary source of political power, when the majority rules, and when social equality and individual rights are the guiding principles. Some dictionary definitions of democracy:

  • A system of government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives.
  • The people can criticize and replace their elected leaders and representatives if they do not perform well.  The people are sovereign—they are the highest authority—and government is based on the will of the people. 
  • Elected representatives at the national and local levels must listen to the people and be responsive to their needs. 

 Is this true in America today?  Has it ever been true in America?  People are mentioned frequently in democracy definitions; Yet it seems today that the government is beginning to take over from the people. And there are signs that now the common people are taking action in order to regain the majority rule and the principles of social equality and individual rights — a government based on the will of the people.

How many politicians are assisting this movement by the common people and how many are resisting?  Resisting seems to be the majority. It doesn’t make sense that a government elected by the people are resisting the will of the people. I think it would be interesting to have an accounting of which politicians are assisting and which politicians are resisting. The time may have come when it needs to be the will of the people, not the desires of the politicians, that will lead to recovery of “our” democracy.


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But Beliefs Become Barriers

If we want to understand how we err, we need to look at how we believe.  Kathryn Schulz

 In order to change your mind, you have to change from believing you were wrong to believing you are right. Or from believing you are right to believing you were wrong. The hard part for humans is changing what you believe. Today we need to look at how we believe, in order to help us decide how to change our minds.

We are not the rational decision making animals we would like to believe we are; we are more likely the rationalizing animal. People prefer to justify mistaken beliefs rather than change the beliefs. This is now a major problem in American political discourse today.

But it isn’t only a problem in politics. The Oxford Dictionaries website chose “post-truth” as the word of the year 2016. It defined post-truth as, relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. In the post-truth era borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and non-fiction. Deceiving others becomes a habit. A recent think piece in Huffington Post labeled “Post-Truth Nation” stated this idea succinctly: the greatest problem of our future is not political; it is not economic; it is not even rational. It’s the battle of fact versus fiction.

The cause of not being able to identify fact vs. fiction, or the unwillingness to acknowledge when we were wrong, is the well-known and well-accepted confirmation bias, sometimes called “myside bias” (H. Mercier & D. Sperber). Confirmation bias is defined as: When we notice and remember information that confirms what we believe, and ignore, forget or minimize information that disconfirms what we believe. This is why sometimes people adopt misinformation instead of information. If reason is designed to sound judgements, confirmation bias is a deterrent to reason. Changing one’s mind seems like a crime, because it usually requires a change in beliefs. And because of the rationalizing human (to devise self-satisfying but incorrect reasons for one’s behavior) this is one reason humans don’t change their minds or behavior.

And because it is so easy to get fact and fiction, information and misinformation on social media, it is so hard to distinguish. Changing your mind isn’t a crime, but it is very hard to do nowadays. The “crime” occurs when we Ignore or deny being wrong. This is called “error blindness” — whatever falsehoods each of us currently believes are necessarily invisible to us, (Kathryn Schulz.) One’s false beliefs, that is one’s errors of judgement, need to be invisible in order for one to remain comfortable and confident.

When we are wrong, we need to understand how we are wrong; we have to understand where our beliefs came from and how they affect what we “know”. False knowledge is usually the result of error blindness, which is usually the result of confirmation bias.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no  need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.   John Galbraith

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Ignorance And False Knowledge

I am not ashamed to confess I am ignorant of what I do not know. Cicero

When information became so important, we called it the Information Age. When information became an explosion, we called it Information Glut. So much attention to data, facts and information has led to the spread of misinformation, false and inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive.

But false and inaccurate information is not new. For example, propaganda has been practiced forever. Definition: the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or information reflecting the views of its propagators; indoctrination or misteaching. In 2005 Stephen Colbert reintroduced the word “truthiness” and it was named the word of the year. He said the word meant, the quality of a thing feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually was. We’re talking about something that seems like truth — the truth we want to exist. In 2008, Damian Thompson published the book, Counterknowledge, which he defined as misinformation packaged to look like fact. It runs contrary to real knowledge and has some social currency. This year U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, when pressed during the interview to explain why Press Secretary Spicer uttered a provable falsehood, stated that Spicer was giving “alternative facts.” Backing up false statements with alternative facts, is voicing alternatives to facts; fictions or lies. What’s next?

Propaganda has always been legitimate in war, and misinformation legitimate in politics.By definition, both are intended to deceive. So are counterknowledge, truthiness and alternative facts. Although I cannot say that today we are having more misinformation than information, I can say it certainty feels like it.

Misinformation is a falsehood and could be called “false information”, leading to false knowledge (knowledge of something false). The problem today is trying to know the difference between someone saying a falsehood to deceive you (misinformation) and someone saying a falsehood because they believe it is true (false knowkedge). This false knowledge is like a false belief or an illusion. Or it could be the result of ignorance, the condition of being uneducated, unaware or uninformed.

But today ignorance doesn’t seem to be the problem. A lot of today’s false knowledge is coming from well-educated, highly informed people in significant, influential positions. This kind of influence may be a dangerous obstacle to our ability to create a positive future for America. Ignorance is not knowing the truth; false knowledge is “knowing” what isn’t true.

Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance. George Bernard Shaw

The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.    Daniel J. Boorstin










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Not Alternative Facts

We prefer to believe what we prefer to be true. Francis Bacon

Once upon a time we had facts; a fact was a fact. By definition facts are true. Today we now have “alternative facts”, although I don’t believe they yet have been defined. I believe it is fair to say that people will believe the facts or alternative facts to be true that they want to be true. Therefore, facts and alternative facts are in the “eye of the beholder”; determined by the observer.

What is needed is a method for determining what is actually truth and what is “real fact”. This exists in the scientific method.  The systematic procedure for scientific investigation, generally involving the observation of phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis concerning the phenomena, experimentation to test the hypothesis, and a conclusion that validates or modifies the hypothesis. Here is my proposal for a modern day reframing strategy: “Alternative Hypotheses”. Instead of debating fact vs. alternative fact, or truth vs. falsehoods or lies, treat them as alternative hypotheses.

Alternative Hypotheses

The surest way to lose the truth is to pretend that you already possess it. Gordon Allport

Treating your truth or facts as a hypothesis assumes it to be true for the purpose of questioning and investigating, in order to be sure. This promotes uncertainty and open-mindedness. Treating truths or facts as absolutes leaves you with no where else to go. When you pretend you already posses the absolute truth, there is no questioning, no investigation, no receptivity to new or different truth possibilities. “Knowing” may prevent learning.

We don’t have to be paralyzed by this strategy. If necessary we can still act on a truth or a fact as a hypothesis, and learn from our experience.  After investigating and being receptive to new or different possibilities, there comes a time to act, to do something. Make a decision on your best hypothesis. Although doing nothing sometimes works, it isn’t always the best policy.

Hypostasis testing is a decision making method. Examining our options, experimenting with outcomes (scenario rehearsal) and estimating our probabilities are all part of the scientific method of deciding. Alternative hypotheses as a reframing strategy in a period when falsehoods are common Is bound to be helpful.

We each are the observer and beholder of our truths and facts. Can you think of some people today who might benefit from applying the scientific method to their truths and facts? What about you? Is it unlikely to expect anyone to question and investigate what they prefer to be true?


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Has Been Invaded

This blog was inspired by sports writer Scott Ostler’s article,                                                  “Politics and sports now inseparable” in the SF Chronicle, Jan. 26, 2017

The Trump thing — has inspired worldwide a whole new level of fear, outrage and determination to get involved.   Scott Ostler *

It appears that the separation of politics and the real world is coming to an end. The whole world is getting involved. For example: The sports world — has either evolved or developed into a forum for political and social thought, talk and action, Scott Ostler. Ostler points out that in the past politics was an island and sports was another island. He reports examples that today, professional football and professional basketball players and coaches have spoken out about current politics. This is unusual. Sports probably has not been the only other island; perhaps also business, science, arts, education, etc. It seems possible that our country has been made up of multiple islands, rather than a collection of united states.

I thought this article on the sports page offers a metaphor that might be useful. (I know I have a bias for metaphor). The political island is not only separate; it is composed of similar inhabitants with similar beliefs and experience. Islanders speak in terms of “us and them, insiders and outsiders”. Outsiders are invaders of “our” territory.

I believe there are other examples of what is happening outside the island of US politics, in America and the whole world. Protest marches all over the world include women, scientists, students, citizens of all color, race, economic and social background, etc. And this is only the beginning. Other countries are protesting, some politicians (inhabitants of the island) are even objecting.

At the risk of overdoing this metaphor, I think you could say that congress is made up of two islands, democrat and republican. And I would suggest that Trump is an island himself with one inhabitant. Trump has totally separated his island from the real world.

It appears that politics may no longer continue to be an isolated island. “Determination to get involved” is the key point in the opening Ostler’s quote. There is beginning an invasion OF the people, BY the people and FOR the people. And American Democracy will not perish from the earth.



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