A bit of a thought stream this evening, on why decisions are hard.
Well. Not all decisions are hard. Some things are so obvious they’re almost decided: do I buy cow’s milk or almond milk? Easy: I’m lactose intolerant. Do I buy the clock that makes a loud ticking sound or the one that’s completely silent? Easy: ticking clocks drive me to distraction.
But the other decisions – when and how should I cut my hair? How much water should I put in my tea? Do I have 2 or 3 squares of chocolate? These are harder because the difference in consequence is smaller. Objectively, they are imperceptibly different in terms of overall positive and negative outcomes. A TED talk on this subject told me so.
More water in my tea means a longer drink, but a weaker one; three squares of chocolate might make me feel instantly better but will mean I need to do an extra couple of sit ups tomorrow morning.
We’re also making tiny decisions all of the time. When to take the next sip of that weak tea. What words to choose when we string a sentence together. Whether it’s too dark and we need the light on.
For some people, these endless decisions every day can be traumatising, especially if raised too often into the conscious mind. Then these tiny daily decisions become a barrage of micro-asteroids, eroding the structural integrity of the hull of our minds.
Why do these decisions become so difficult? Choice paralysis is a powerful thing, and I’m certainly experiencing more of it than usual since I’ve started planning our wedding. What kind of flowers do we give people? And the table layouts? How difficult should we make the table game? How much alcohol should we buy? How many types of food should we serve? The questions here are endless.
But it’s freeing to keep in mind that the reason these decisions are so hard is that they don’t matter. Whatever choice we make, the outcome will be similar. People will be just as happy with whatever food, booze and entertainment we provide (within reasonable tolerances) – and pleasing one type of person means displeasing another.
The important thing here is to make a choice. Because not doing so is the only thing that has a bad outcome. If I can’t choose when and how to cut my hair, so I never get it done – it will grow unruly and untidy, and I’ll look a mess (though that might also be a valid choice…). If I don’t decide on the food or the booze or the entertainment, it won’t get booked and there won’t be a wedding to hold.
Having confidence in the fact that most decisions people make daily are trivial and inconsequential, and those that matter are considered and evaluated using the information available, then made without undue hesitation.
Making a choice allows us to then plot out whatever dependencies might stem from that choice: if I choose to go on holiday in Peru instead of Sweden, I might start thinking very differently about savings (because flights will cost different amounts), wardrobe (hot or cold clothes shopping), and even how I gear myself up mentally for those holidays.
A choice can also be changing our minds once we’ve seen that the outcome of the choice is not as rosy as we’d hoped. Better to make the call to turn around (because, say, the price of accommodation in Sweden is twice what you expected) and cut your losses than carry on and have an even worse outcome.
Politically speaking, this is very hard to do (eh, Theresa?). In government, about-faces are done subtly where possible because the fallout from changing your mind (despite it being the right thing to do) can be career-ending. It might be why we Brits have such difficulty turning around and going back the way we came even when we know we’re walking or driving the wrong way.
Despite the fact that these choices are easy choices, our own self-imposition – the hard-wiring that makes it hard for us to accept new beliefs that clash with our own, and the reason for why its so difficult to persuade someone of something when they strongly believe in the opposite position – can create huge barriers for us.
So decisions become harder still because we think we can’t change our minds later.
Changing your mind should always be a sign of strength. We have evolved to find that difficult – it’s how we make sense of the world. We can quickly establish rules about how things operate so that we can rely on that logic later. Other animals can’t do this so easily – it means they often take longer to learn how things work, and can’t understand systems with layers of complexity. It’s an advantage that we do this – but the consequences are wars and disagreements because we’ve stopped being able to listen.
I just wish all this logic worked when you want to cancel a booking.
Damn admin fees.