Decision Making Conundrum

ImageShahzeb is about to finish his engineering degree; a couple of months more of arduous toil in the labs, a few hundred pages of dissertation, a few days of mind-boggling preparation for his final presentation and he’ll be through with his undergrad education in Electronics engineering. At this critical juncture in his life, Shahzeb is faced with making a number of significant and life-changing decisions.

Like almost every youth in the underdeveloped and developing world, he too has been deprived of essential career counseling and was made to make decisions either based on his tacit understanding of his skills, aptitude and desires in life, or worse, the bandwagon effect. The former, no matter how insidious, is indigenous: derived from his own perception and intellect; whereas the latter is a groupthink experience which is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within peers, colleagues, friends, etc., in which the desire for harmony based on the lack of knowledge and fear of unknown results in a combined decision, whose quality and meticulousness may be questionable.


Shahzeb would like to pursue a career in electronics, or he’ll like to go abroad for higher education, or change the field and pursue further education and career in business administration, or switch to engineering management field, or get married! What an irony; he is supposed to do all of it on his own, after all how will he learn the tough situations of life without making ‘wrong’ decisions. Thus we reach at a very interesting situation: making wrong decisions. If analyzed objectively, we never make wrong decisions; given the time, space and conditions, our choices in life are always perfectly right. But then the future unfolds what seemed uncertain before and a hindsight analysis – a retrospective review, so to say – hits us with the unthinkable and inevitable: our decision was wrong!


ImageThis retrospective analysis is at the core of ‘better’ decision making; it allows us to try and understand what went wrong and how it can be mended. Without admitting the wrongfulness, it’s impossible to improve – that’s what we terms as ‘experience’. But can we always derive positive and enabling lessons from our experience? This question brings us to another core issue we face while decision making: the (ir)rationality. Although we believe that our decisions are based on pure rationality, logic and farsightedness, nothing can be farther from truth in this context. It can be partially factual given an ample prep. time or a single criterion to decide on. However things get very tricky when we’re made to think and decide fast, and where there are multiple-criteria. No matter how sensible the various MCDM (multiple-criteria decision making) techniques seem at the outset, psychologists have revealed the irrationality of human decision making. In their seminal work, Kahneman and Tversky[1][2] nailed the fact that when confronted with cognitively tough situations, we almost always tend to make irrational decisions, choices which are not necessarily based on pure logic and reasoning, but revolve around something famously called ‘gut feeling’.


Contrary to impulsive decisions, we also have the realm of ‘informed decision making’. However it’s important to understand that irrationality of our decisions is not necessarily tantamount to impracticality. There is a complete field of social philosophy around this topic and a worth mentioning work “The Humean Theory of Practical Irrationality[3]. Suffice to synthesize the Humean theory of rationality: it’s rational for agents (decision makers) to do whatever maximizes expected desire satisfaction. Thus, the desirability is paramount to decision making in trivial cases, not the rationality.

Also the decisions based on gut feeling are automatic; we make them implicitly, conveniently and without breaking much sweat. On the other hand, the informed and calculated decision making is an effortful activity; it involves active participation of most of our brain’s faculties, dilation of our pupils and an increase in heart rate.

ImageGetting back to our dear Shahzeb, he is justified in making his decisions, regardless of the results, in order to enrich his experiences. He’ll definitely realize the significance of thinking it through before making a choice, he’ll learn the important lessons during his journey and he’ll definitely succeed in his endeavors but he’ll always remain – like all of us – an irrational decision maker, a quality we all must be proud of. Let’s make mistakes and learn from them, let’s take the responsibility of fixing up what erroneously we messed up and let’s help each other in doing that.

I’ll conclude by a line from Thinking, Fast and Slow[4]: “The premise of this (article) is that it’s easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own”.

[1] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. science, 185(4157), 1124-1131.

[2] Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society, 263-291.

[3] Sinhababu, N. (2011). Humean Theory of Practical Irrationality, The. J. Ethics & Soc. Phil., 6, 1.

[4] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

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