Decisions, decisions

We know it's difficult to make decisions. To choose between chocolate cake or lemon meringue pie is not easy for me.  How to choose? The equality of desire for two things, such as desserts, makes the choice very difficult, even when the outcome of the choice is not very important. But even I have to admit that there are things in life which are more important than dessert and there, surely, we make choices based on a rational consideration of the benefits and disadvantages for our lives? Yes?  Well maybe not. 

For example, we are aware that our decisions may be influenced by advertising. You would think that if we were conscious of an influence we would be able to negate its effect - we know that advertising is far from honest in its representation of goods and services. But it seems that the immense amounts of money spent on advertising indicate that we choose not do so or, more likely, can’t be bothered to do so.  It looks as though enough of us are beguiled by the message to warrant the money spent: evidently we are hypnotised into deciding that we do actually want whatever is being sold to us.

So what about the decisions which do not have anything to do with advertising? Are they based on reason? For many years there was the idea that the Market was a perfect example of reason used in pursuit of the wish to gain as much as possible.  We have seen that the perfect market (i.e. the rational market) beloved of economists is an illusion. The market talks freely of movements of 'sentiment' in the value of shares.  The clue is in the use of the word 'sentiment'.  We have an explanation for this sentiment as group-think, which means that the market cannot be rational.  Of course this is not really an explanation of why it happens, but only a description of what actually happens.  We would have to delve deeper into our psychology to find out why we want to behave as others do by making similar choices to them.  It may well be fear that they know something which we don’t or it may be laziness on our part – just following the crowd.

But what about the decisions we make about normal life?  A decision to buy a particular branded product, whether in a shop or on-line should be simple once you have decided to buy it. It's just the price, yes? Well, no. Because its not only price, but the anticipated after-sales service, the delivery cost and, in general, if you trust the seller. Should I buy a freezer from John Lewis or Comet? But to ascertain all the facts necessary to rationally justify the decision is not easy. In fact, we depend on our instincts - that is, we guess, even if in part based on past experience.

And for things which are even more complex it is almost impossible to have all the facts necessary to make a truly rational decision. For this reason it is so difficult e.g. to decide what house to buy or rent. The rather unappealing presenters of Location, Location, Location have made an excellent living from this.  The more we see the houses available, the more we realise that there are so many variables to compare. And even if we have a list of priorities at the beginning, we will probably choose something different in the end. Ultimately we will usually buy the house with which we have ‘fallen in love’ - and love is the most mysterious of things to pick apart.

Recently we have seen that scientists are beginning to take this lack of rationality in our decision-making more seriously. There are now scientific studies that seek to respond to the idea that our decisions can be explained at least in large part as the result of evolution and not by reason pure and simple. The idea that researchers are examining is that, throughout our lives, we have both genetic predispositions to make particular decisions and we also learn through experience how to make decisions in a pragmatic way, a way which reflects our experience and that of others from whom we learn.

They propose however that this experiential learning is just like the increasingly ‘intelligent’ algorithms - we weigh things up unconsciously for the most part. To do this, we have heuristics, rules of thumb, that we apply and of which we are not really conscious.  According to the researchers, this is an advantage because to have to think in detail about each and every decision would not be practical. We do not have the time, as it seems we make between 2,500 and 10,000 decisions every day.

Now, it is obvious that there are very useful basic instinctive reactions - disgust protects us from many diseases; fear in the presence of strange noises, especially when it is dark, may save our lives. There may also be a survival benefit from anger - it will motivate us to punish a wrongdoer and therefore maintain social cohesion. Empathy too, it is increasingly realised, is there for the same purpose and is one of the main explanations for our moral codes. 

But there are two heuristics, i.e. rules of thumb, which are not obviously connected directly to emotions, but which, it seems, we use every day.  There is the heuristic of 'recognition' which will direct you towards taking a familiar option where there is very little information to enable you to make a rational choice - maybe going to Waitrose or John Lewis to buy something out of the ordinary, because we trust them to provide something of good quality. And then there is the heuristic 'enough', that tells you to choose the first option that meets or exceeds your expectations, when to delay a choice would harm your interests. For example, marriage. As the Australian comedian Tim Minchin sang so romantically in a song dedicated to his girlfriend -

"If it hadn't been you it would have been somebody-else"

But I do not want to accept that my decisions are all made in the darkness of my subconscious. And despite what the experts suggest, it seems to me that there is still a place for a conscious decision, one subject to my reason, such as it is.  It seems to me that even if my subconscious pushes me towards a particular decision, this is where we distinguish ourselves from those organisms without self-consciousness. Of course if we accept that other animals have varying degrees of self-consciousness, then it means that we are on a continuum going from plankton to us.

But I see the subterranean 'decision' based on my genetics as only a suggestion offered to the conscious me.  I can still decide whether it makes sense in the broader context of my life.  If evolution and my experience have produced a subconscious reflex suitable for my needs, then I can accept its suggestions, but if on closer examination of the context it turns out to be not to my advantage, then I will normally turn it down. I am not forced to accept it.  After all I know that my subconscious is by no means perfect. It does not, for example, understand the world of probability very well and thus at the level of instinct we can make really bad decisions. 

Fortunately, however, I can pause and check to see if I am in danger of doing something stupid.  I may also pause and reflect if I want to change the direction of my life.  I am not bound to accept the normal solution, but can decide instead to engage my reason and to look around for other possibilities, other solutions.  And it is this which makes me human.

Paul Buckingham

October 7th, 2019

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