I have faced some interesting and challenging decisions these past several months and observed others in the same boat. This got me thinking about how people go about making decisions. Is it rational? Is it emotional? Certainly both come into play. Which one should play the dominant role?
Decision making should include at least three perspectives: 1) moral, 2) risk vs. reward, and 3) probability. I believe the first question should always relate to one’s moral standards, that is, whether something is morally right or wrong. This is often all that is needed to make the correct decision.
“In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.” — Thomas Jefferson, Third U.S. president
If a course of action is neither right nor wrong in the moral sense, the next step would be to compare the risks and the rewards. Here’s a method that might help. For each alternative, make a two-column list. Write down rewards in the left column and risks in the right column. Are the potential rewards more valuable than the risks? People play the lottery because they value the remote chance of becoming rich more than they value the money spent on lottery tickets. This is a risk vs. reward decision.
“What you risk reveals what you value.” — Jeanette Winterson
Finally, look at the choices from the probability perspective. From your list, cross off the ridiculously improbable risks. Also eliminate those with consequences you could live with if they did occur. Circle the rewards with the greatest personal value. Compare the remaining risks with the circled rewards. Your best choice should be much easier to discern.
“Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.” — George S. Patton (1885-1945)
I think people usually make bad decisions because they overlook one or two of these dimensions. Here are some reasons people make bad decisions:
- They don’t know what they want.
- They value pleasure more than their own integrity.
- They prefer immediate rewards over long-term rewards.
- They don’t see the potential rewards.
- They don’t see the risks.
- They don’t understand the probability of the risks and rewards.
- They allow fear to dominate and distort their thinking.
- They fear making a wrong decision above all else.
Before I wrap-up, reflect on these quotes about decisions.
“The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: Decide what you want.” — Ben Stein
“Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work.” — H. L. Hunt
“The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.” — George Eliot (1819-1880)
“It is our choices…that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” — J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, 1999
“The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.” — John Dewey
“An executive is a person who always decides; sometimes he decides correctly, but he always decides.” — John H. Patterson
“If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is a compromise.” — Robert Fritz
Even though this decision-making process uses a framework of logic, it reserves plenty of room for emotions. How so? The moral perspective is possible because of emotion, which strengthens a person’s grip on his moral convictions. In the second perspective, reward is a value judgment influenced heavily by emotion. Good or bad, the third perspective will probably be colored by emotions. For example, fear can fool one’s mind into overestimating the probability of certain risks. This process is not perfect. But it can help achieve a healthy balance between logic and emotion.
© Copyright August 2008, Clancy Cross. All rights reserved.
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