Navigating uncertainty
November 27, 2008 5:51 AM   Subscribe

How do you know if you're doing the right thing?

What sort of workaday, mental rules-of-thumb do you use to ensure your thoughts or actions are best suited to deal with an uncertain (moral or otherwise) situation?

Maybe you already use a range of 'mental heuristics', such as these.

Or perhaps you abide by one simple principle, like Abraham Lincoln's: "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion."

In general, what on-the-fly thinking works best for you (i.e., no pen and paper around to sketch and figure things out with)?
posted by concourse to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
How will you feel about your actions remembering them in 20 years?
posted by By The Grace of God at 5:55 AM on November 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

The prospect of external judgment/evaluation of the situation usually works for me. Asking myself "Would I be ashamed or proud to tell my friends/family about this?" can help.
posted by gwenlister at 6:16 AM on November 27, 2008

Not to be too vague, but Brett Dennen's lyrics sum it up for me, and it's also what I tell my kids: "follow your heart, and you won't get lost".

Learning to listen to your instincts is a real gift to yourself.
posted by agentwills at 6:16 AM on November 27, 2008

Best answer: For me it was learning not to trust my instincts. What am I resisting doing? That's probably the thing I really need to be doing.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:21 AM on November 27, 2008 [6 favorites]

I don't do anything I'll regret and I do things I'd regret not having done.
posted by valadil at 7:20 AM on November 27, 2008

How will my actions (and the results of my actions) effect those around me? Is there anything I can do to modify my planned action(s) such that I still get what I want, AND also do something positive for those around me?
posted by jmnugent at 7:26 AM on November 27, 2008

I use "How okay is it if I'm wrong?" to figure out whether or not to do something risky. Like if I leave my coat here, will someone steal it? Maybe, but it's not going to ruin my life. It'll be something of a drag. If I leave my baby here, will someone steal her? Maybe, but if someone does steal her, it will ruin my life.

So, I have two categories: 'Oh, well' and 'Jesus'
posted by A Terrible Llama at 7:40 AM on November 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Would Bob Marley endorse this action? What would he do?"

This will keep you doing the right thing.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:46 AM on November 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Be aware of the psychological tendencies that keep people from making good decisions, such as cognitive dissonance. I just read a very good book on the subject, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.
posted by espertus at 8:57 AM on November 27, 2008

Personally, I utilize the "newspaper" guideline. How would I feel if my actions were documented in a story in the paper and my family was to read it? Would I be proud? Ashamed? Disgusted with myself? That usually serves as a decent barometer for the larger decisions I have to make.
posted by galimatias at 9:04 AM on November 27, 2008

Sometimes, if I can't decide on a course of action, I'll flip a coin.

How I feel about the result often gives me the answer.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:05 AM on November 27, 2008

What would Mr. Rogers do?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:13 AM on November 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

I use the 'can I tell my mom about this?' rule. If it's something I'd prefer she didn't find out about, it's something that warrants much deeper scrutiny. I'd rather be a goody-two-shoes - after a good laugh at myself, I can still sleep at night.
posted by workerant at 9:22 AM on November 27, 2008

These are the questions I ask myself...

1. First and most important, how much will my actions impact the people involved? Are my actions going to affect anyone else, in the first place?
2. If so, are they innocent in this situation? Are they innocent or good people, in general?
3. Guilty or not, did they put themselves in this situation?
4. Who are their friends or allies? How much will my actions impact them?
5. What's the likelihood of retaliation from them, or their friends/allies?
6. What's the likelihood of me being caught?
7. How much do I have to gain? How much can I lose? Especially in the long-term.
posted by sixcolors at 9:24 AM on November 27, 2008

Best answer: "What if everyone did that?"

Most of the time we can make exceptions for ourselves - only this once, or I deserve to have two servings of cake even though I'm only supposed to get one.

It's pretty strict as far as rules of thumb go.
posted by Gor-ella at 10:00 AM on November 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

What's the likelihood of me being caught?

If you have to consider this question, chances are good that you arenĀ“t doing the right thing.
posted by yohko at 10:32 AM on November 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

Is this going to damage* someone else?

If Y, then don't do it. If N, then continue to next question.

Will this physically hurt me if I do it?

If Y, then don't do it. If N, then continue to next question.

Will it benefit me in some way?

If N, then don't do it. If Y, then do it.

*By damage, I'm referring to malicious mental or physical harm. Other people will be upset no matter what I do, but this is my life, and I only get one shot at it. Worrying about other people's hurt feelings lasts a few minutes - the feeling of relief from not visiting a vicious relative lasts a lot longer. :)
posted by Solomon at 10:54 AM on November 27, 2008

Best answer: Sort of along the "What would Mr. Rogers do" solution.

When I'm not sure about what I should do I think about what someone I respect would think about my actions. In my case, my father or grandfather. If I think either would be disappointed in me I know it isn't the right thing to do.
posted by Carbolic at 11:20 AM on November 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

I use the perennial "How would I feel if I were treated this way?" test. This is sort of aligned with the Granny Weatherwax criterion: evil is treating people as things.
posted by Susurration at 1:05 PM on November 27, 2008

To simplify-there is indeed more to this action than it seems but it will divulge unconscious thoughts and reveal your true ethical core beliefs. It works every time.

Stand tall in a quiet room. Think the thought that you are pondering. Feel which way your body leans; forward-yes, backward-no.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 2:00 PM on November 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am trying to figure out what my very first, initial knee-jerk reaction was. After I know what is to know, I try to remove external disturbance and until the mind settles and a clear trend emerges. Difficult to find enough quiet time...
As other suggested, taking an external perspective can help: when in doubt I choose what makes me sleep better. Nobody can blame you if you a decision is difficult and you err; if you screw up a difficult decision it means you were correct in thinking the decision was wrong.
posted by EuroBunny at 2:40 PM on November 27, 2008

I think Krishnamurti said something along the lines of: If you feel conflicted about something, there isn't really any conflict because conflict implies that you know the 'right' thing to do and are considering doing the wrong thing; if you were considering doing the right thing, you wouldn't feel conflicted.

Knowing what the right thing is isn't difficult, but doing the right thing often is.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:41 PM on November 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't overthink it. If it feels right it probably is. Occasionally you'll fuck up but that's life.
posted by tkolar at 3:53 PM on November 27, 2008

As George W. Bush once said, "If it feels good, do it. If you've got a problem, blame someone else." I have no idea what the context of it was, but I had to throw that in there.

But to answer the question, I'm not sure if just "following your heart/instincts" is the right one, despite what we're often told in the movies. Sometimes it's wrong. A person in a particular field might follow their instincts to great success, but they have the experience and knowledge to have developed those instincts. You may not.

Not that I follow it often enough, but I like the first response, and those that echo it. Try to imagine yourself in the future looking back on the present. Take a step back and look upon the moment from that external perspective. Really think through all the possible results of your potential actions. Sure you'll be wrong sometimes, or there was no right answer at all, but at least you'll know you took everything into consideration first. Sometimes that's all you can do. Of course, sometimes there's another option: ask for help.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 5:16 PM on November 27, 2008

In our family, we ask ourselves "The Question." The Question is:

"What's the worst that could happen?"

Then we ask ourselves, could I/we live with/deal with/process the worst that could happen? It kind of turns into a simple flowchart from there. If the answer is yes, proceed. If the answer is no, then "Danger, Will Robinson!"
posted by Lynsey at 10:04 PM on November 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Rotary International has long promoted The Four-Way Test, written by a Rotarian in 1932:

1. Is it the truth?

2. Is it fair to call concerned?

3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

posted by dhartung at 10:34 PM on November 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

How do you know if you're doing the right thing?

You don't, many times, until very much later.
posted by telstar at 10:50 PM on November 27, 2008

I remind myself of the person I'm trying to be / become and ask myself if the action I'm thinking of taking is in agreement with that.

I remind myself that I am trying to walk through life with dignity and grace and that I must act accordingly.

I ask myself - What would Mr Rogers / Barack Obama/ Cary Grant do?
posted by triggerfinger at 1:48 AM on November 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

When travelling on the tube in London at rush hour (oh god) and am crushed on the platform I try to imagine every person on the platform is in my extended family. That person I just thought about elbowing aside to get onto the next carriage? That's an aunt. That guy to my right I can shut out with full deniability? A cousin. It's a good mental excercise that keeps me from viewing the mass as impersonal obstructions.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 2:05 AM on November 28, 2008

The categorical imperative, baby. Second formulation, but who's counting?

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means."
posted by Beardman at 8:01 PM on November 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

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