How To Take Good Decisions For Life

It is secular to depend on ourselves, but spiritual to act with prudence.

For the one who believes every outcome is the right outcome, there is no decision to be made. However, for the western society which likes to think we have some influence over outcomes, no better way to think about it. This is not limited to western society at all – we all like to think that we have some influence over our outcomes. Isn’t there a contradiction then between the spiritual and the material? We’ll explore this further on.

After establishing the first principle that decisions cannot be judged from their outcomes, we learn that a decision can only be judged by “the light the decision-maker had when making the decision.” In other words, we have to travel back in time to the point where the decision was being made, and look at all the information the decision-maker had. We have to then see how the decision process unfolded, by examining it in light of the six elements of decision quality, which can be applied by anyone in any decision situation:

Appropriate Framing: Think of the decision as similar to taking a photo. Was the decision “frame” too restrictive, or was it too broad to be useful? Did we make assumptions that we ought to have explicitly stated and challenged? Recognizing one’s assumptions requires taking a step back. Most of the time, we narrow our frame too much and don’t zoom out to see how much room there is. At other times, we are so overwhelmed by our lack of focus that we cannot recognize what our decision is. Developing an awareness of when to zoom in and zoom out is at the heart of arriving at the appropriate frame. When discussing our decision frame, it is extremely important not to be trapped by our own rhetoric, and so we have to try our best to use value-neutral language (language that does not evoke value-judgments). For instance, there is a big difference in our emotional reaction when using the word “pollution” over the more neutral “emission.”

Creative Alternatives: Did we find ourselves restricted by the alternatives at hand, or did we make a sincere effort in coming up with creative alternatives? Most of the time, when we have a favored alternative, we jump straight in without reflection. Sometimes, we are so attached to our favorite alternative that we may even be manipulative in making sure it is chosen. Breaking our attachment and giving ourselves room to be creative is necessary in order to find out-of-the-box alternatives.

Clear Values: Did we think about the important sources of value? What is it that is fundamentally important to us? What is instrumental? Do we appreciate all the values that are important and how they relate to each other? Understanding what we want involves understanding ourselves. Did we slow down to reflect on what’s important to us?

Useful Information: Did we try hard enough to resolve the most critical uncertainties in our decision situation? Or did we spend our time gathering useless information that would not help our decision-making? We live in the age of “information explosion” thanks to the Internet, and can easily be overwhelmed by it. Instead of trying to get as much data as possible on anything and everything, we can direct our attention to the information that affects what we value the most. More fundamentally, it is important for the decision maker to recognize that information is a state of mind. There are no probabilities out there in the universe that can be discovered by plunging into a haystack of data. Probabilities are a measure of our beliefs about the universe, and they only exist in our head. This distinction helps keep us honest by avoiding misleading terms like “objective probability.”

Sound Reasoning: Were we consistent with our values when using information to come up with the best alternative? Did we contradict our values? This is the only element of decision quality that can be considered “objective.” Given all the same inputs, the process of decision analysis will give us the same answer every time. However, it is rare for two people to have the same inputs. Each individual has different values and different beliefs. Decisions therefore are necessarily subjective and so, if we take the decision-maker out of the decision, the notion of a decision becomes meaningless.

Commitment to Action: While we may do a great decision analysis, when it comes time for the rubber to hit the road, does the car stop? How committed are we as decision-makers to follow through on what we believe to be a good decision? Lack of commitment to action can render the best decision analysis useless.

What else after the decision is made?

You can only judge your own decisions: a consequence of understanding decision analysis is in seeing the logical fallacy of being judgmental. Given the above elements, you can’t possibly judge the quality of another person’s decision, as it’s too hard to get all this information. This is fascinating – even without talking about spirituality, decision analysis brings to the fore the futility of judging other people.

Sunk Cost principle: The past is gone – it isn’t coming back. You cannot hold on to how much you’ve sunk in any calculations on coming out ahead in the future. This brilliant rule knocks out clinging to the past, and incorporates it in our mathematics. In our exams, when students include the sunk cost in their mathematical calculations, they get penalized for making a fundamental mistake! The principle is treated as matter-of-fact, without a second thought given to the huge implications on our lives, which is, as it should be. Why should we spend large chunks of our life regretting the past? The past matters for learning, not for accounting.

Testing our beliefs and values: what if we believed differently – would our decisions change? What if we valued differently – would our decisions change? Do we have to go through all of our values to make a decision? Which values are material to our decision-making (as in, if we change some of our preferences, would our decisions change)? This interaction with our own beliefs and values is invaluable, for it helps loosen our attachment to any one belief and helps create a space of reflection between us and our decisions.

Only when we believe that we have done our best can we let go of all our attachments to the past and the future, and start to be present. When we are fully present, we are free to do our best, at this one instant of time. We are living more fully, more happily.