Choosing our choices*

Sometimes we’re lucky and get to choose between two good alternatives. Sometimes we’re unlucky and have to choose the better of two bad ones. We can probably figure these out, given our values and enough time.

But there is a trap in this seeming simplicity: What if the values of our choices change as soon as we make them? Experiments have proven humans fear losing something about twice as much as we desire getting the same thing. We value what we might lose at $10, though we’d be willing to pay only $5 to acquire it. A great explanation is detailed in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Dr. Daniel Kahneman.

Baby arrived and Parent, a very successful Lawyer, took a year away from Firm to raise Baby. But Firm wants Lawyer back, or will find a replacement. So Parent faces a dilemma: Return to work and become Great Provider, or stay at home and be Great Parent? That’s a choice between two good alternatives, but we could also state it as the better of two bad ones: Losing Career or Losing Baby.

These are equal in fact but not to our emotions, where Losing Career costs twice the value of being a Great Provider, and Losing Baby costs twice the benefit of being Great Parent. And as soon as a decision is made, the path not taken becomes a loss.

Lawyer decides to be a Great Parent. As soon as that decision is made, the positive alternative of being a Great Provider is instantly viewed as Losing Career, and the cost doubles. What seemed to be the right decision seems very wrong. “I just wasted law school! I made a mistake!

“Okay, I haven’t told the Firm to flush my career. I will keep the job, buy the greatest nanny, and we’ll take great enriching vacations.” But the moment Parent makes that decision, not being Great Parent is suddenly seen as Losing Baby, with twice the cost. “Baby won’t bond! What if the Nanny is abusive!? I made a mistake!

“Okay, I haven’t hired the nanny. I will be a Great Parent.” But immediately the Good Provider alternative not chosen snaps into Losing Career. Cost doubles. “Wait! Where will the money come from for…?” And the dance goes on.

I imagine the doorway out of this maze is faith: we did the best we could, it will all work out, nothing is perfect, or for those so inclined, God will provide. But that kind of faith may be learned before language, and very hard to acquire.

And some will always find an interpretation, whatever the outcome of whatever choice, that validates their fear. Making it even worse next time trying to grapple with the uncertainty of doing the right thing or choosing the best of bad choices.

*(Thank you Shawn Coyne, writing at Steven Pressfield Online, for the inspiration).

About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon
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2 Responses to Choosing our choices*

  1. But that kind of faith may be learned before language, and very hard to acquire.

    Well now… that got me to thinkin’… And so many of the “faithful” seem to lack of it.

  2. Christine Gray says:

    The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. F. Scott Fitzgerald

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