Should I bite the bullet?
March 10, 2006 11:19 AM   Subscribe

I've often noticed that when confronted by a decision, some of us err on the side of not making a decision at all. What is your personal philosophy when confronted by a decision, or how do you avoid avoiding making decisions?

Perhaps something along the line of, "at least if I make this decision and it's the wrong choice, it's better than to not make the decision at all?"
posted by russmail to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Just yesterday when discussing one of those hypothetical ethical problems with someone (where you have to rank each person involved in how much to blame each one is for one of their deaths), I said that basically I can see all the sides of the argument and not really make a hard choice. Just like cancer, I believe most things have multiple causes and sides to them. Like all of the different psychological approaches - behaviorism, psychoanalytic theory, cognitive approach, humanistic - each has its own important and valid contributions, and each its own weaknesses. Not one of those approaches alone can adequately explain everything in the field of psychology. Basically, this is how I look at almost everything.... I see it as a Taoist perspective, really... though I'm not really sure how to explain it's Taoist. One of the mysteries of Taoism :)
posted by mojabunni at 11:44 AM on March 10, 2006

As soon as I feel myself going down the path of not making a decision, and know I should, I set an arbitrary deadline for when I have to make the decision.
posted by selfmedicating at 11:54 AM on March 10, 2006

I often repeat to myself the famous words of Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
posted by tkolar at 11:54 AM on March 10, 2006

It really depends on the type of decision. There are decisions that are pretty much givens for me -- getting out of bed to go to work, wearing pants, drinking water when I'm thirsty. It's the harder decisions, the ones where you have to weigh more options and there's a level of importance that people tend to falter. It may be a fear of failure, or even a fear of making a choice that will seem "wrong" later.

When it comes down to it, most choices are obvious. The number of AskMe questions that have a leading answer ("My girlfriend has been cheating, I know I should break up with her.. but...") almost outnumber the ones without one when the query involes an important choice. People often delay a decision because they hope the other choice could somehow work -- or think that the situation will play out without intervention if they do nothing.

I procrastinate for all of the above reasons and many more. But it's more out of my lack of faith in my own ability than anything else. In my experience it's best to actually make a decision, but not in haste. It's just a matter of deciding when you have enough information to proceed.
posted by mikeh at 12:00 PM on March 10, 2006

how do you avoid avoiding making decisions?

Realize that making no decision IS a decision in itself. You're deciding to do nothing (or perhaps deciding to analyze the situation further). So, you can't ever avoid decisions.

Start reading books by Peter Drucker about management and decision-making.
posted by frogan at 12:00 PM on March 10, 2006

I look at the decision, and figure out if I lose anything by not making it now. If I don't lose anything, I don't make a decision.

A lot of these apparent choices disappear over the horizon never to return, so I save a lot of bother that way. I think of this as 'horizon management'.

If I stand to gain by making a decision now, the first thing I ask myself is, "is it obvious what I am going to decide?". A lot of the time, even with apparently difficult choices, when I consult my guts I discover that only one of the choices is one I can actually live with, whatever the arguments. So that solves that.

Only if I exhaust the above do I actually start looking at the specific ins and outs.

To give you an example, I needed to buy a house. I looked at hundreds. For a long time, the decision wasn't pressing, and because I didn't see anything I loved, I simply kept not making the decision to buy, since I lost nothing by deferring it.

Eventually we *needed* to move, so I started looking at the houses differently. Each time we went into one, I asked myself "reality check -- is it actually conceivable I would buy this house?". The answer was almost always 'no', usually because of what I called 'the fuck-off factor', which was the thing about the house that made you go 'fuck off'. For example, stupid layout, too small rooms, dumb location, whatever.

Only when both me and my wife saw a place which passed the 'reality check' test did we even start thinking about buying it. We ended up buying the only place which passed this test, even though we weren't at all in love with it. It turned out to be an incredibly smart decision, even though it was made very unemotionally.

Anyway the point of the above is that I try to spend as little time making decisions as possible, while also giving the most time possible to decisions which it is important to make.
posted by unSane at 12:09 PM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

To echo some of what unSane is saying, sometimes the wisest thing one can do is to postpone a decision when you don't have enough data.

Decisions are seductive; we are often tempted to make decisions quickly, because just making one or the other choice brings with it a sense of relief that the considering is done and the other possibilities have been discarded. Living with unknowns is uncomfortable, and our culture really doesn't reinforce the need to take some time over important things.

But hastily made, bad decisions are not a better outcome than never-made decisions. If the time pressure is not significant, and the facts don't seem to have ripened or there are too many unknowns, there's nothing wrong with staying on the fence for a while, doing some more observation and reflection.
posted by Miko at 12:38 PM on March 10, 2006

Whatever decision you make, it is the correct one. It is up to you to make it turn out right.
posted by SirOmega at 1:00 PM on March 10, 2006

I like the idea of "regret minimization" that many people have proposed, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos:
So I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, "Okay, now I'm looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have." I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn't regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried.
And I frequently turn to a principle known as "Olson's Razor" (after my friend Andy Olson):
When in doubt, make the choice that will be most amusing.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:02 PM on March 10, 2006

I look at the decision, and figure out if I lose anything by not making it now. If I don't lose anything, I don't make a decision.

But you always gain and/or lose something by making a decision to postpone an action. At the very least, there are opportunity costs involved.

I needed to buy a house. ... I simply kept not making the decision to buy, since I lost nothing by deferring it.

Actually, you lost potential equity in the new house, and if you were renting, you lost the rent paid out while you were waiting to make your decision. Those were sunk costs -- you can't get those back. You also lost potential "happiness" in not moving to a better house, but you balanced that cost vs. your present level of happiness and the risk of buying the wrong house and becoming unhappy with it.

there's nothing wrong with staying on the fence for a while, doing some more observation and reflection

True. It's probably a good idea. Just realize that sitting on the fence is a decision itself, one that has its own costs and benefits.
posted by frogan at 1:08 PM on March 10, 2006

I rarely have trouble making decisions, because I have a risk-seeking personality. If I were Buridan's Ass, there's not a chance in hell that I would starve.

Of course, accepting this attitude means accepting a willingness to be really wrong sometimes. If you can't let go of mistakes and try again, I'd imagine it would be a lot harder.
posted by I Love Tacos at 1:39 PM on March 10, 2006

I don't have great advice for this, because I tend to postpone decisions, and I hate myself when I do, but I have a couple of thoughts:

1) I recently read some study that suggested that people who endlessly deliberate (like me) are less happy than people who just go ahead and make a decision. I wish I remember where. So, don't endlessly deliberate, and make sure if you're following unSane and Miko's advice, which is good, that you aren't failing to make a decision you're actually postponing considering it.

2) If you can game youself, then flipping a coin can be really great for things that don't matter too much. If you can assure yourself that you'll stop worrying once the coin lands, use it.

3) Something I find virtually useless for decisions of any significance are pro and con lists. I think it's too easy to rig them depending on what you want, and they have what I think of as a flat ontology, so that one (or at least me) ends up comparing apples and oranges. eg: This one has more buttons, this color makes me really happy; pro: it's cheaper, con: I don't like it.
posted by OmieWise at 1:52 PM on March 10, 2006

flipping a coin can be really great

OmieWise reminded me of a great mental trick I once read using coin tossing, which I have used on a few occasions. You do a 'dry run' coin toss. You first promise yourself you don't have to follow through on what the coin says. That takes the pressure off. Then, decide what's heads and what's tails, and toss the coin, purely as an exercise. When the coin lands, you just observe your reaction to the outcome.

You can do it a few times to try out your reaction to both results. This can tell you a lot about what you'd really prefer to happen.

Whether what you'd prefer to happen is the best decision is, of course, another matter.
posted by Miko at 2:19 PM on March 10, 2006

Thomas Hobbes, the 16th-century British philosopher, made an excellent point. No one should every agonize about any decision. If the difference between two choices is wide, then the decision is easy. And if it is narrow, what the fuck does it matter? (At least that's what I recall. I may be paraphrasing.)
posted by yclipse at 5:16 PM on March 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've found over the decades that the only way for me to decide correctly when confronted with an important decision is to go with my "gut," or my intuitive feeling. If I'm not getting an intuitive feeling about a situation, I simply won't make a decision until I do. Every time I have wavered from this rule, I've regretted it; every time I've followed it, time has shown that I made the right decision.

What I've found is that the available facts often don't support my "gut feeling." (Emphasize "available" facts; it's impossible to ever have all the facts on a decision, since all decisions also involve opportunity costs, as noted above.) That used to rattle me, but I've learned the hard way that I should ignore the facts in such cases. I KNOW what the right decision is, and I just need to give myself permission to act on it.

I've also learned that, apart from obvious cases ("should I try to drive while I'm drunk?" "should I help this gentleman who emailed me about some funds being held in escrow in Nigeria?", etc), it's surprisingly difficult to make a documentably bad decision. All decisions have an immediate cascade of unintended consequences. If I'd taken a "better" job just out of college, I never would have met my husband of 20 years, and my beautiful 4-month-old son would never have existed. And who knows what his future holds? Years from now, hundreds or thousands or millions of lives might be different because of him. All because I answered a tiny newspaper ad for a crap job in 1985.

You can't control or predict the unintended consequences. So it doesn't pay to overanalyze the "facts" in the decision.

Also, regarding change: Of course change is scary. I've learned, though, that things change whether or not you change them. So never have the illusion that avoiding making changes will prevent change from happening.
posted by ROTFL at 6:01 PM on March 10, 2006

1. Is the decision important enough for it to actually need to be made?

2. Yes? Bite the bullet and make a decision.

3. No? Maybe make it if you feel like it. More likely just forget about it and have another beer.

Seriously, that's always been my philosophy and I'm doing okay.
posted by Decani at 8:13 PM on March 10, 2006

Flipping coins can also be great for things that matter a hell of a lot.

If I'm faced with making a really important decision, and it's been nagging at me for weeks and I still can't decide, that says to me that the arguments both ways are equally compelling - therefore, the chance getting it right by thinking it over for even longer is pretty much 50%, so I'm better off just flipping a coin because that's equally effective and faster.

I flip it once. If I absolutely can't bear the choice the coin has made for me, I just pretend (once) that it flipped the other way. That's it; decision made, job done, tick, move along, nothing more to see here.

See also :)
posted by flabdablet at 11:19 PM on March 10, 2006

I hear indecision is related to perfectionism, so I stop trying to be perfect and try to think of not-deciding as a mistake:

* I focus on how much I don't know. Once I realized I never have enough information to make a perfect decision, decisions became kind of fun, like gambling or experimenting on myself ("well, let's see what happens if I do THIS!"). Even if it all goes wrong, I can say to myself, "you did the best you could with what you knew at the time."
* I always think decisions are risky, so I remind myself how risky not deciding is. I've wasted a lot of time locked in indecision. I remind myself how short life is.
* Thinking of the decision as a pathway instead of a destination -- "which doors will this decision open vs. that decision?" or "how will this shape me as a person?" I relax if I remember that I'll get to make other decisions later.
* Focusing on the opportunities of each decision rather than the risks keeps me from getting laden with fear ("what if I screw up??").
posted by salvia at 11:28 PM on March 10, 2006

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