Making Decisions

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Many have said that life is about making decisions. Of course, if we are each the master of our own ship, we would chose our own course in life deliberately and wisely, giving our choices the care that they deserve. After all, it is our very life that we’re tending and we all want what’s best for us.

But how do we really go about making choices in our life?

We know that we’re much more skilled in making decisions when we have good existing knowledge. Also, less complicated decisions benefit from conscious deliberation more than complex ones. Decisions made under stress more often take less or too much time and deliberation, using too little or too much of the information at hand.

Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman and others have amassed a big bag of evidence that wags a finger at us, showing that we humans make even simple decisions illogically, emotionally and from the muck of our biases and idiosyncratic conditioning.

There’s little question that the past conditions of our life, the repetition of our ways of seeing and reacting, and the present conditions in our life influence our intuitive judgment and Malcolm Gladwell’s rapid cognition.

No one would argue that we steer a premeditated course toward any of the many ruinous places that seem to outnumber the ‘happily-ever-after’ ones. Instead, we may be pulled like a space-station by the steady gravity of invisible forces into lower and lower orbits around trouble. Another way to look at how the illusion of deciding about the directions in our life develops is to consider a domino of reactions, rippling forward over the moments.

Who in their right mind would have an affair, cheat the law, hurt loved ones, court addictions, embrace hobbling debt or veer toward pain. Well, rather quite a few of us. Actions often precede awareness, and our actions can be doozies. Although we might feel confident, this confidence might be just a feeling of mastery that precedes seeing the real situation accurately.

If we stop and review what guidance we have had in learning about making decisions, for many of us the education has been meagre. For the majority of us, many major life ‘decisions’ seem to be less a matter of clear deliberation under the sun of brave honesty and thorough review of the issues at hand. While reason and logic may make cameos while we navigate choices, in the company of some amount of conscious agonizing, the reality is that much of our unconscious nature acts as our guide to choices that determine the eventual landmarks of our lives.

The forks in the road are more often navigated by processes outside of our awareness. We may be like passengers looking out the window at aware moments, exclaiming about the dangers or that we like what we see, yet submitting to the general course set by some unseen driver. Maybe that’s why blaming someone else can be so easy.

When we meet choices and crossroads, sometimes doing nothing for a while may be our best course of (non)action. You could try that with one of the decisions that’s stalking you these days. When we take some time we may become acquainted with the underlying motives, unmet needs or emotional imperatives that highjack choice. Distinguish between wants and needs. Filter out irrelevant and distracting issues. Look in the mirror to discern whether some choice reflects an aversion to some discomfort or pain that we’re better off to face and know more clearly. Boredom, anger, insecurity, ego, feelings of entitlement and fantasy can push up impulsive ‘solutions’ like mushrooms from old soil – not all of them edible, if you know what I mean.