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How to make difficult decisions

Thursday 29th December 2016

In conversation with Dr Ruth Chang: philosopher and renowned expert in really hard choices. 

Illustration: Lucy Han

This Q&A is part of our two-week series on choices. Click here for more.  

There is possibly no person on earth who thinks more deeply about hard choices than Dr Ruth Chang. The philosophy professor from Rutgers University is a highly sought after expert on the subject, known internationally for her research on the “incommensurability of values” and “practical reason and normativity” (why some choices feel impossibly hard, and the tools we can use to confront them). 

Beyond academia, Chang consults for bodies within the gaming and pharmaceutical industries. In a few weeks, she'll go and do the same for the World Bank. She teaches them new ways to think about choice-making, like how our value systems affect our decisions and the specific psychological factors that can trip us up.

Most research on choice sits within the field of psychology, but Chang's work is distinctively philosophical. She looks at what's going on in our minds, but always with a view to finding a recipe for how our lives – and society at large – should be. Unsurprisingly, that means a heap of correspondence from nervy decision makers eager to plumb the depths of her knowledge. So that’s where we’ll start. 

What do people ask you about choices, for the most part?

I’ve distilled all the emails I get from people into two questions: ‘What are the biggest misconceptions about hard choices?’ and, ‘What is your recipe for making hard choices?’

The bigness of a choice clearly isn’t what makes it hard, because there are a lot of big choices that are easy to make. 

The first misconception is that hard choices are hard because they’re big. The bigness of a choice clearly isn’t what makes it hard, because there are a lot of big choices that are easy to make. Like having the operation with a 99 percent chance of curing you from a debilitating condition. That’s a big choice – it’ll change your life irrevocably. But it’s an easy choice.

The other, key misconception people have about hard choices is that there has to be a correct best answer out there. As if the answer were a scientific fact, and all you had to do was roll up your sleeves and figure it out. But many of the things we think are relevant when trying to choose something – a career, say – are things we can’t know, and that’s where the agonising comes in.

You’ve written that it’s a mistake to tackle hard choices as though our options can be measured or weighed against each other. Because difficult decisions are about emotional values, not scientific units.

Exactly. Values aren’t quantities, like weight. We think that you can put Johnny and Tommy on a scale and figure out which guy is better for you to marry, in the same way you can measure the length of two sticks. We think we just need the metrics to tell us what to choose. It’s a mistake to think like that.

Imagine, for example, that you have the choice between a brownie or a fruit salad for dessert. You take a bite of both and you think, 'Gosh, neither taste better than the other.' So we ask, 'Maybe they taste equally good to you?' We know that’s not true, because suppose we make the brownie a bit better by adding a chocolate chip to it. The brownie with the chocolate chip now tastes better to you than the brownie without the chocolate chip. And I ask, 'Which taste better to you now?' You might still judge that neither taste better to you: 'They just taste really different.'

It follows, then, that the original brownie and the original fruit in the cup could not have tasted ‘equally good’ to you. Because when you have equally good things, and then you make one of them better, the thing you’ve improved has now got to be better than the other thing. That’s the complicated philosophical argument that demonstrates that values can’t be measured like quantities can. There are actual arguments like that which demonstrate it’s a mistake to think about love and beauty and knowledge on the model of weight and volume. It’s just an error.

What about the other inquiry you get – ‘How I can make this agonising decision?’

Yeah, ‘Give me a recipe.’ The first thing to say is, there is no recipe. Come on, we’re talking about life. But there is an abstract set of five steps you can take to make sure you’re not missing something important.

The first step is to figure out what matters when it comes to choosing between your options. Is it your wellbeing? Is it what other people will think of you?

The first step is to figure out what matters when it comes to choosing between your options. Is it your wellbeing? Is it what other people will think of you? You have to figure that out, but most people don’t, and that can lead to flip-flopping because you’re changing your mind about what matters.

The second step is to gather all the pros and the cons relevant to what matters in the choice. The trouble with choice-making is that people usually stop there. They think, ‘Okay, that’s it. I just figure out what matters, then I gather the pros and cons with respect to what matters, and then I’m done.’

Even without knowing them as ‘steps’, we naturally assume that’s all it takes.

Yeah. That somehow the right decision will become clear because there will be some piece of information that you suddenly come to learn. That’s how people get in these agonising cycles; they just keep trying to get more information.

Step three involves recognising that the values associated with the hard choice aren’t like scientific quantities, where there always has to be a best answer. Of course, your options can be compared, it’s just a mistake to think that the way they compare is akin to science: being ‘equal’ [see brownie analogy] or one thing having more units of something.

After we recognise that the alternatives are on a par, we go to step four, which, in a way, is the most difficult step. Step four involves committing to one of the alternatives. Which means accepting that it’s not true that you will ‘make a mistake’ if you choose the ‘wrong’ one.

But even though scientific reason doesn’t force you to choose one, you don’t always want to just drift into one of the alternatives, either. You will now have this power to commit to one of the alternatives in the same way that you commit to a loved one, and thereby give yourself a new reason that you didn’t have before, to go for that option that you’ve committed to.

What makes it true that the person you are in fact with is best for you is your commitment to him or her. By committing to your partner, you have now made it true that your partner is the best person for you.

I want to analogise this with committing to a loved one. If you think about it, and I suspect it's true of your readers, it’s just not true that the person they are with, romantically speaking, is the single best person for them. There are many, many, many people on the planet who are on a par, with respect to being a loving partner for each individual. 

What makes it true that the person you are in fact with is best for you is your commitment to him or her. By committing to your partner, you have now made it true that your partner is the best person for you.

Putting ourselves behind that person, standing for them, is the sort of thing we need to also do when we face other kinds of hard choices, such as between careers, or other futures we don’t know the facts about. 

For example, if you commit to being a neurosurgeon as opposed to an investment banker, you will stand behind that path in a way you couldn’t have foreseen. You’ll actually regard the things that happen in the future differently than you would have, had you not committed to it. Suppose you go to medical school and you had no idea how tough medical school was going to be. If you’re not committed to being a neurosurgeon, you’ll take this as evidence that you should be doing something else.

You’ll think you made the wrong choice.

Yeah. But if you have committed to it, you’ll take the fact that it involves a lot of work as a kind of challenge. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, but it means that you view it as part of a process, as opposed to some piece of evidence that you’ve made a wrong turn. So by committing to things, we can actually create reasons for ourselves to continue on that path. That’s the fourth step.

The fifth step is not really a step, it’s more of a consequence of your having committed. The fifth aspect is that by committing to, say, being a neurosurgeon as opposed to an investment banker, you actually create your identity. You make yourself into a certain kind of person. The story of the fifth step is recognising how hard choices are the mechanism by which each of us gets to write the story of our own lives.

The alternative, 'enlightenment' picture to this is that we’re like little frantic automata running around trying to figure out the facts, then doing the better thing. That pictures leaves no room for our agency. This way of thinking about hard choices, step five, assures us that we really can be the author of our lives.

So how do you make yourself really, truly believe that there is no best option? Not just on an intellectual level, but instinctually?

Okay. Suppose you’re a lucky person who has two men madly in love with you. They’re both very different and you’re trying to decide who to spend the rest of your life with. If you believe, ‘There is a truth.’ Or, ‘God knows – but I don’t – if Adam is better for me than Bob,’ then you have to think about how possible that is. Think about 50 years with Adam and 50 years with Bob...

Terrifying.

...They’re going to be really different lives, and to think that there’s actually a ‘truth’ that one life has more units of goodness than the other is crazy. The truth is, they’re very different lives and they are on a par.

It’s important to note that we’re talking about hard choices here. By definition, there could be a case where Adam is going to be a serial murderer. Then it’s true that your life with Bob is better. But that’s not a hard choice. That’s a choice that just has to do with not knowing enough facts. A hard choice is one in which even God would say, ‘Look, neither is better than the other.’ Then what? That’s the kind of hard choice I’m interested in. 

Me too. What if neither Adam or Bob were murderers? How would you…

You do step four. You have to commit. When I say ‘have to’, I don’t really mean that.

You could ditch them both.

Well, what many people do is end up drifting, because they don’t realise that they have this power to commit.

Isn’t drifting a sort of fatalistic choice in itself, though? It still leads directly to an outcome.

That’s a very interesting question. Sometimes when you drift, it’s not active. You’re just being carried along. You set up house with Bob, but your heart isn’t in it. Then my guess is, you’re going to end up divorced or not have a very happy marriage.

How can people know if they’re drifting?

The fact is, in a sense you do shut the door. If you put your agency behind being a neurosurgeon, you’re not going to have time to climb Mt. Everest or to be a lawyer.

By recognising that you’re allowing something other than your very agency to determine what you will do. Committing is a scary thing. Many very intelligent people find it difficult to commit to things because they think by committing they’re closing the door to other options. The fact is, in a sense you do shut the door. If you put your agency behind being a neurosurgeon, you’re not going to have time to climb Mt. Everest or to be a lawyer. That’s what life is like. Life is about making yourself into a wholehearted being.

One of the other aspects of this research on hard choices is that it slightly shifts the focus of what the point of life is. Many people think the point of life is to be happy, and this view says no, that’s a mistake. It’s about being wholehearted. Life is about making yourself do things that express you.

It’s a reframing of the idea happiness and wholeheartedness should always run parallel.

Yes. They don’t always run parallel. I think in most cases, if you’re wholehearted and you’re in the industrialised world, chances are you’ll be happy. But we shouldn’t be trying to aim for happiness; it will often just be a side effect of wholeheartedness.

Let me make a distinction between commitment, and doing what you want to do: wants are things that are not active. Let’s say you find yourself with a desire to have some chocolate ice cream right now. If I say to you, ‘I’ll give you a billion dollars to want to eat this saucer of mud instead,' you can’t do it. You cannot drum up desires. Desires are things that come to us unbidden, as some philosopher said. The idea of commitment is not to do what you want to do, because your desires are things that you don’t have control over. When you commit to something, it’s you who’s doing it. It’s not some desire you happen to have that’s in the driver seat. It’s you.

But shouldn’t we be striving to align the two; to commit to what we want?

Because you’ve committed, you now have these desires you wouldn’t have had, to try and stick with it. 

That’s super good, yes. Except I would say it’s the opposite direction. That what you do is commit to something, and then the desire follows.

Like an arranged marriage? 

Yes. Let’s say you know nothing about Adam or Bob but you throw your agency behind Bob because you decide, ‘I’m just going to make my life with Bob’ – which many women over the centuries have done, or had to do. Then, as we know, Bob leaves the toothpaste cap undone and his socks lying around. If you’ve committed to Bob, that just looks like stuff you’ve got to roll with instead of ‘Oh my God! What did I do? I should have committed to Adam.’

Because you’ve committed, you now have these desires you wouldn’t have had, had you not committed, to try and stick with it. Your desires will follow your commitment, not the other way around. [Inversely], when you follow the desires, your agency would be a slave to these passive desires you happen to have. The key point is that your agency is independent of these desires, impulses, or compulsions you might find yourself with.

So when we change our mind about something, is that just a sign we haven’t put our agency behind something fully enough?

It depends on how you fill out the story. Sometimes when you commit to something, stuff happens. You might find yourself no longer able to be committed to Bob, for example. He’s such a slob and you just can’t stand it. You find yourself pulling away and putting your agency somewhere separate. Then when you meet Steve in the smoky bar and sparks fly, it’s because you’re not committed to Bob. If you were committed to Bob and you saw this attractive guy Steve, you would just think, ‘That’s an attractive guy.’ Because your agency is behind a life with Bob.

But people must worry it means they’ve made the wrong choice.

Yes. And what that means is not necessarily that they’ve made the wrong choice, but rather that they’re no longer committed to Bob, or the degree to which they’re committed to Bob has now lessened. That’s life, too. That’s what happens. [But] people who keep flitting from one thing that they think is best to another thing that they think as best are as bad as drifters, because their agency is never behind anything.

Indecision can feel even worse than thinking you've made the wrong decision. Why is that?

People agonise because they are saddled with this false assumption that there really is a best option, they just don’t know which it is. 

My diagnosis is that people agonise because they are saddled with this false assumption that there really is a best option, they just don’t know which it is. What they have to do is something wholly different: not to discover which is better, but to figure out which option they can commit to. And that’s a completely different exercise than what most people are used to.

What is it about your nature that lead you to a career studying choices?

I’m someone who for many, many agonising years could not make a decision to save my life. I was one of those highly analytical people brought up in a semi-passive culture who was always looking for the right answer. Then I just realised, ‘That cannot be right.’ That it all rests on a fundamental assumption about the nature of value as being akin to the nature of scientific quantities. Then it seemed to me that there were good reasons to reject that assumption.

Does indecision still rear its head for you, even though you know and you practice this philosophy?

Absolutely. Commitment is a very scary thing, and across cultures it’s a topic that is very under-theorised and under-appreciated. It hasn’t come into popular consciousness. Most people just drift through life assuming the enlightenment picture and then they just get buffeted about by circumstances.

It’s very rare to find someone who really is the author of his or her own life. I had this lovely elderly artist couple write to me. They said, ‘We haven’t faced a hard choice since our twenties, when we started to become artists.’ In a way, they’re living the kind of utopia that I think we should aspire to, which is by committing to things. Then hard choices would at least dissipate in number, because we’ve already wholeheartedly made ourselves into certain types of people. Then we’re no longer stuck in these situations where what is really going on is that we’re trying to figure out who to be.

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Rebecca writes and produces content for The Wireless, covering society, feminism, pop culture and health. Send her your story tips today.
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