We agonise over the outcomes and consequences of our decisions. But should we? Decisions are neither good nor bad, they are different. But here is how to make decision-making easy.
Our lives are series of decisions punctuated by intended and unintended consequences of those decisions. We make decisions every minute, hour, day, month…. Whether it’s a small decision - to eat an apple or a banana, or big decisions like buying a house, marrying someone, moving to another country; we are constantly making decisions. So, if our lives are really made up of decisions and their consequences how can we become good at making decisions? In fact, is it even possible to be good at making decisions? Can we be trained to be good at it? How do we know if a decision is good or bad? I woke up this morning wondering about that question, questioning some of my recent decisions, decisions I made yesterday, decisions I need to make today, and tomorrow. But that got me thinking, and wondering. How do I know if I made, or am about to make the right decision? In my quest to answer some of those questions, I did a bit of digging around and made some discoveries. So, here we go.
Decisions are neither right nor wrong.
This is something I have thought about over the years, but have come to fully-believe only recently. Decisions are neither wrong nor right. They are different. What makes a decision right or wrong is its consequences - intended or not. Consequences usually take time. They can be positive or negative. But attributing a consequence to a prior decision is not an easy task. It is riddled with problems. There are all the usual pitfalls of attribution bias. But what makes attributing consequences to decisions more difficult is that we usually make decisions based on the consequences of previous decisions.
But what makes attributing consequences to decisions more difficult is that we usually make decisions based on the consequences of previous decisions.
Suppose the consequences of a decision I made today are positive. But that decision only came about as a direct response to the negative consequences of an earlier decision. Would I attribute this latest positive outcome to today’s decision or to the one I made last year? In the same vein, would I now say the decision I made last year was good even though its immediate consequences were negative? You see where I am going with this. It is complicated. Once you start tracing decisions and consequences backwards – where do you stop?
I will give an example. Many years ago, I made a decision to break up with my then girlfriend. It was totally out of the blue. I just had a gut feeling that things weren’t working. She was shocked, distraught, and hurt. She quit her job, packed her stuff, and moved to another country. I had not anticipated or intended for such drastic reaction and consequence. Her family blamed me for driving her away. They hated me for it. She blamed me for ruining her life. I blamed myself and felt bad and guilty. But was I really responsible for her reaction and the consequences that followed my decision to break up with her? After all, I had not intended for her to quit her job and emigrate. For several years things were difficult for her. It’s always difficult to settle in a foreign country. There were other personal challenges in her family that she couldn’t help with because she was living abroad. All this just made my guilt worse. I started questioning my decision to break up with her, the decision that had led directly to her quitting her job and moving to another country. After all, I still liked her very much as a person, even at the time of making the decision to break up. But it was the ‘gut feeling’ and a few other minor issues that had influenced my decision. Naturally, I went through a long period of questioning that decision. A decision based on nothing more substantive than “gut feeling”.
Then something changed. A few years later, she called to say hi. During that phone call, she told me she had met the man of her dreams: handsome, with a budding medical career, and a great personality. She told me she believed she had finally met her soulmate. A wedding was already on the cards. That was the happiest and most contend version of her I had ever known. There was an unmistakable spark in her voice. When we ended our conversation, I couldn’t help but think about all the years I had spent feeling guilty and responsible for every little bad thing that befell her after our breakup. In light of this new information, my decision didn’t seem so bad.
These things are never easy. When it comes to decisions, time is an important variable. You can only tell in time if the decision was good or bad. But that doesn’t help us make better decisions today. What then?
Here is where I think the focus should be. Since decisions are neither good nor bad, the only other variable that can be measured, albeit qualitatively, is justification. How do you justify your decision? What reasons do you have for making one decision and not the other? With most life choices, the reasons are seldom quantitative. A few are. If you are deciding between a chocolate brownie and an apple for dessert you may make your decision based on something quantitative like calories. But you could also make the decision based on something more qualitative like taste. Other, more subjective, variables may also influence your decision and choice in this case - your mood, what others are having, what you ate yesterday, etc. But how about big decisions - staying or breaking up with someone or hiring or not hiring a candidate? These sorts of decisions have too many variables for our brain to compute quantitatively. That’s bad and good news. It's bad news because there is no way of reaching a completely objective, rational, and optimal decision. But the good news is you don’t have to. For two reasons. First, because decisions are neither good nor bad. Secondly, because of evolution. Evolution has already sorted that decision-making mechanism in the most effective way. It’s called gut feeling or intuition.
We usually expect and try to make decisions based on logic. We look at the facts and weigh the pros and cons. That is a good way to make decisions if you have enough information to draw a logical conclusion. Unfortunately, we don’t always have all the information we need to make good decisions. Even if you do have the information, it is not as objective as we sometimes think. It’s a well-known psychological bias (confirmation bias, to be precise) that we tend to look for information that support our beliefs in the first place. This is where ‘gut feeling’ comes in. Here is my description of ‘gut feeling’. Think of your brain as a computer. Every time you see, do, learn, or experience something – it captures and stores that information somewhere. So, when you are faced with a choice your brain will “retrieve” and process all that information and tell you the right choice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give you a clear logical explanation because it must process a vast amount of information collected over many years and experiences. We are talking about millions of data points here. Because your brain doesn't have the language (and time) to explain the millions of connections and computations, the simplest thing it can do is nudge you towards the right decision.
For those who are a bit sciencey – all this happens in the limbic part of our brains. This is the part that is responsible for our feelings - like trust, love, loyalty etc. This bit of the brain is responsible for decision-making too, but it has no capacity for language. That probably explains why sometimes we call our gut feeling ‘the little voice’, ‘inner voice’ ‘back of my mind’ etc – because the limbic part of our brains cannot communicate the decision-making process properly to us through language.
The bit of our brain that has capacity for language is the neocortex. But this part is responsible for rational and analytical thought – and language. That’s why sometimes we just ‘have a hunch’ or ‘a feeling’. This simply means your limbic brain is making decisions, but your neocortex is unable to make sense of and explain that decision in understandable terms. Enough of the science. What all this means however is that your ‘gut feeling’ is not some weird unexplained thing. It is real. And if you want to make good decisions – i.e. decisions that are based on your brain’s amazing capacity to process the most complex information, information you won’t even know your brain is accessing – go with your gut feeling. Even if the gut feeling goes against what appears to be logical and rational.
Responsibility for decisions
Who should take responsibility for the outcomes and consequences of your decisions? Before I answer this question, I should make it clear that I am not talking about anything illegal here. If you make a decision to do something illegal, you must face the consequences. But when it comes to everyday life decisions, I don’t think you should take responsibility for all their outcomes and consequences. By that, I mean not all things that happen or are done by others following your decision are your responsibility. But you should take responsibility for your reasons or justifications. Even if that reason is just your intuition or gut feeling. If you are happy with your reason(s) and accept full responsibility for them, you should not feel good or bad about other unintended consequences of your decision.
To conclude, I will go over the main points I raised in this article. Decisions are neither good nor bad; they are different. Time is the best variable for determining the outcomes and consequences of decisions. In that sense, if you can buy some time before making a decision, then please do. Delaying a decision, if possible, can bring clarity. If you don't have enough information and time, don’t agonise too much on logic or facts; go with your gut feeling instead. And finally, you are not responsible for all the unintended consequences of your decisions. But you are responsible for your decisions and the reasons for those decisions.