Monday, June 6, 2016

Understanding the Choices we Make

Apparently, making a choice is only the first (and easy step) when it comes to informed and independent decision making.

Oracle: Candy?
Neo: You already know if I'm going to take it?
Oracle: [I] wouldn't be much of an Oracle if I didn't.
Neo: But if you already know, how can I make a choice?
Oracle: Because you didn't come here to make the choice, you've already made it. You're here to try to understand why you made it.

The Matrix trilogy (The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions) is one of those movies you keep watching every once in a while, and every new time, you better understand or learn something new.
It is for this reason that it permanently resides on my hard drive.

The central theme in The Matrix is human consciousness in the age of Artificial Intelligence.
The scene above is from Matrix Reloaded.

Later on in the dialogue, the Oracle says the following:

We can never see past the choices we don't understand.

I often think above these words, which makes manifest the enduring truth in the above statement - that making a choice is only the first step in decision making.

Informed Choices

Proper decision making is usually associated with free will and knowledge or understanding. Only then can one make informed choices.

As for free will, it is largely an illusion. Concerted psychological and philosophical research has so far showed exactly that. For a better understanding, listen to Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussing Free Will on In Our Time, on BBC Radio 4.

Does Having Many Choices Help?

Many will argue that having more options to choose from makes decision making somewhat easier. Well, that is sadly not the case. Too many choices actually result in something called choice paralysis.

Choice paralysis was well tackled by Barry Schwartz in his TED Talk in 2007.

This paradox of choice, however, has also been disputed.

So how can decision making be made easier?

Well, Sheena Iyengar has addressed this in two TED Talks. One is on how to make choosing easier in 2011, which was a follow up to her 2010 talk on The Art of Choosing.

All in all, how to decide is not exactly an easy task. Making choices can, and does result in decision fatigue. The Umbel blog outlines 7 steps that can help you in deciding how to decide:
  • clearly define measurable goals
  • recognize that your brain has tendencies and biases
  • set a date or time to make your final decision
  • seek expert advice; find out what others are doing to achieve similar goals
  • identify alternative methods of achieving your goal
  • check your gut
  • satisfice yourself.
In case you're wondering, this is what satisfice means:

1. (intransitive) to act in such a way as to satisfy the minimum requirements for achieving a particular result
2. (transitive) ( obsolete) to satisfy
Understanding Our Choices

Having made a (hopefully right) choice, the more important aspect of decision making then comes into play - understanding that choice.

Let's delve into this with an example that will illustrate how making choices without bothering to understand them can be dangerous.

Imagine a young man or woman who upon graduation, gets a well-paying job in a prestigious company. He proceeds to live in a leafy suburb in Nairobi.
He then fully succumbs to the bright lights, big city way of life - drugs, drinking, fast women and fancy cars... all in an effort to live on the fastlane.

Soon enough, this reckless living catches up with our friend - debt, poor health, mental anguish and alienation from his fair-weather friends. He has indeed made all these choices, nothing has been done under duress. But he could never see past the choices he did not understand.

That, in essence, is how we all miss out on the inevitable consequences of our choices and the acts that are predicated on such choices.
It all boils down to making an effort, if only to understand the choices that we routinely make.

* * *

The fact that we may not be in a position to fully exercise independent free will should not be an excuse to making not only the right choices, but choices that we understand.

In lieu of this, we become quick to judge and slow to learn.  We run ahead, but go too slow.
But everything's not lost, and there is hope. If only we take a different road.


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