How Do People Make Decisions?
Do the things we decide, make us who we are? That’s the question I’ve been thinking about lately, and one that continues to intrigue and challenge my mind.
You see, every single day, people make thousands of choices; some big, with potentially life-changing impact, while others make no real difference at all.
But regardless of what we're deliberating, the actual mental exercise of making a good choice stays the same. Does the same decision-making muscle that helps people answer big life questions like, “What should I do for my career?” and “Whom should I marry?” also get used to answer trivial things like, “What’s for lunch?” and “Should I wear the red dress or black dress?”?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I’ve been researching this topic heavily, and can tell you, that how you and I decide still isn’t an exact science. And to make things even more complex, everybody you meet has slightly different tastes and preferences. So, something that I might find beautiful, you might find ugly; what you find delicious, may be to my senses, disgusting.
But, there have to be some universal preferences, right? For example, if you took a random sampling of one hundred people and asked them to choose between five dollars or five hundred dollars, how many people do you expect prefer the five over the five hundred?
In Michael Lewis’ latest book, The Undoing Project, the author tells the beautiful yet tragic story of the academic relationship that influenced this very field of behavioral economics perhaps more than any other; that is, between psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. But to be honest, the book only left me craving more answers. Because, what Kahneman and Tversky really discovered from all their hard work, experiments, and publications is that our brains are extremely gullible and inconsistent decision makers, highly influenced to answer questions and make choices depending on how they’re framed.
So then, what does it mean or even look like to be somebody who's really good and making choices? Top investors get paid for choosing highly profitable companies over failing ones. Great editors are sought after for curating preferable news, fashion, and writing, as opposed to older, tackier, and poorly written content. So there's definitely some underlying intrinsic value in being able to discern good from great.
When the right choice is only half the battle
Let’s suppose for a moment, that we are in fact able to increase our decision-making capabilities. The next problem is that knowing the “correct choice” makes no difference, if we’re incapable of acting upon it.
Most people know and agree that smoking is bad for your health. And yet, despite countless efforts and warnings, millions of people smoke every day. We also know that daily exercise is very good for health, yet still millions of people lay idle on their couches, night after night.
Interestingly, it seems that most things that are good for our future selves, are actually very hard for our present selves to implement. Saving money, eating well, staying in shape, reading instead of watching T.V., listening to our partners instead of yelling at them, loving our neighbors rather than ignoring; none of these things are easy, despite knowing the better choice.
Which means to me, there’s another dimension to making choices: time. Cost-benefit analysis is where our immediate brain lives. Five hundred dollars now is always a better choice than the five dollars. A sale is always better than paying the full retail price. But, as you start upping the time costs: say spending two hours looking for deals, lifting the weights, studying a new skill, the immediate reward decreases just enough to tip the scale in favor of the easier, more immediately gratifying path. Suddenly, the longer-term "better option" becomes less appealing. Saving the extra two bucks by taking the bus is nice, but not at the cost of an extra hour of commute. A six-pack of abs would be great, but it would take months of painful training and there’s simply never enough time.
When thinking in terms of dollars, making the “right choice” is easy to quantify. Yet, once you factor in time costs, many of our desired outcomes feel too far out of reach, and thus no longer worthy of immediate pursuit.
Yet, the best decision makers I know all seem to have the ability to shift their time-horizons far further than the average person. Chess players, investors, prolific artists, they all play games that require thinking many moves or years ahead of what’s currently on the board. The fluidity at which truly great thinkers are able to navigate both short and long-term choices always amazes me.
If we are indeed the product of our choices, my biggest struggle is in bridging these two selves. How do you empathize with yourself in ten years? Of course we're still the same person, but why do the choices I make today, look so different from those I would make if I’m planning farther ahead?
If you have some insight here, I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below, or by email. How and why we decide the things we do, continues to fascinate me. And as I wrote earlier, everyone has different tastes. But just maybe, there’s something to gained by learning how and striving to make "better decisions". Today, the world presents us with more life choices than at any prior time in history, so I figure, I might as well make good use of that.