Why do we find it so hard to make a big de­ci­sion? Stop over­think­ing

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture -

Why is it that big, con­se­quen­tial life de­ci­sions – whether to have kids, marry a spe­cific per­son, pur­sue one ca­reer path over an­other – can feel so ago­nis­ing? Ob­vi­ously, it’s be­cause they re­ally mat­ter. Yet, on closer in­spec­tion, that can’t be the whole story. All sorts of other de­ci­sions “re­ally mat­ter”, too: whether to seek med­i­cal help when you break your leg; whether to use an oven glove to han­dle an ex­tremely hot dish; whether to park your car on a level cross­ing. But they’re not ago­nis­ing at all. They’re so straight­for­ward that it sounds strange even to think of them as de­ci­sions.

Per­haps what makes de­ci­sions ago­nis­ing is that they mat­ter and there is too much un­cer­tainty to know which op­tion to choose. That sounds more rea­son­able. But as the US psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Ta­nia Lom­brozo points out, it’s still a bit weird. If no sin­gle op­tion clearly stands out then your de­ci­sion doesn’t much mat­ter. You could just flip a coin. Or, as Lom­brozo puts it: “Hard de­ci­sions should be easy.”

This is Fred­kin’s para­dox, pro­posed by the com­puter sci­en­tist Ed­ward Fred­kin, whose col­league Marvin Min­sky quoted him as fol­lows: “The more equally at­trac­tive two al­ter­na­tives seem, the harder it can be to choose be­tween them – no mat­ter that, to the same de­gree, the choice can only mat­ter less.”

Ev­ery bone in our bod­ies rails against the idea of choos­ing a spouse or a ca­reer the way you’d choose be­tween spaghetti bolog­nese or pizza margherita. Yet to the ex­tent that you’re un­able to know how things will turn out, over­think­ing is fu­tile: it can’t af­fect what econ­o­mists call your “ex­pected util­ity”. Cer­tainly, it’ll turn out to have mat­tered in hind­sight – but by then it’ll be too late. Hence the para­dox: we fret and stew, as if hop­ing through sheer ef­fort to see into the fu­ture. In the worst case, we end up choos­ing none of the po­ten­tially good op­tions, but a defini­tively bad one – paralysis – in­stead. That is the fate of “Buri­dan’s ass”, the hy­po­thet­i­cal don­key, po­si­tioned equidis­tantly be­tween hay and wa­ter, that is hun­gry and thirsty and stays rooted to the spot, thus starv­ing to death.

Merely know­ing about Fred­kin’s para­dox prob­a­bly won’t re­duce your ten­dency to over­think­ing: it is too deeply con­di­tioned for that. But it can pro­vide so­lace, I think, when a de­ci­sion turns out to have been bad. You can re­mind your­self that you truly couldn’t have known. You were tak­ing a stab in the dark.

The philoso­pher Alan Watts once ob­served that the process we call “de­cid­ing” – mov­ing grad­u­ally to­wards a res­o­lu­tion – is fre­quently no such thing. Rather, it’s just a pe­riod of flip­ping back and forth be­tween op­tions, fol­lowed by a sud­den, in­tu­itive, semi-ran­dom choice. We might as well own up to that.

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