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Chapter 9. The Art of Making Intelligent Decisions

To live is to act. To act is to decide. Everyday life is an endless sequence of decisions. Some of the decisions are small and inconsequential, and some are large and life determining. When the pattern of decision-making is rational, we live a rational life. When the pattern is irrational, we live an irrational life. Rational decisions maximize the quality of one's life without violating the rights, or harming the well being, of others. Rational decisions maximize our chances of happiness, successful living, and fulfillment. Critical thinking, when applied to decision-making, enhances the rationality of decisions made by raising the pattern of decision-making to the level of conscious and deliberate choice. No one deliberately chooses to live an irrational life. Many, however, subconsciously choose to live an irrational or unethical life. In doing so, they maximize their chances of unhappiness and frustration, or do harm to others in seeking their own advantage.

There are as many domains of decision-making as there are of thinking. Indeed, the most important decision we can make is how and what to think about things, for how and what we think determines how we feel and how we act. We decide what to think, feel, and do when we act as a parent. We decide what to think, feel, and do when we make decisions about our professional lives. We decide what to think, feel, and do when we make decisions about the social world in which we have been raised and the groups of which we are a member (family, professional, personal associations, nation, etc.). We decide what to think, feel, and do when we make political decisions about the policies, parties, and candidates that we choose to support. We decide what to think, feel, and do when we make decisions about what we are morally obliged to do (and what we are not so obliged to do). We decide what to think, feel, and do when we make decisions about our life-style, about the nature and value of friendship, about the nature of what is most important in our lives. We decide what to think, feel, and do when we think historically, sociologically, professionally, environmentally, and philosophically. What is more, the thinking we do in one domain of our lives often is influenced by the thinking we do in other domains of our lives. Often the domains are overlapping. As a result, the decisions we make in one domain of our lives often are influenced by the decisions we make in other domains of our lives.

To become a skilled decision-maker, one must become a skilled thinker, and to become either is to learn to think about our lives both as a whole and as a complex of parts. The most intimate part of the world in which we live originates in our thoughts and actions and is maintained by these. To become a critical thinker, we must become an intimate observer of the manner in which we construct our own intimate world. We must understand how we have been socialized and the implications of that process. We must understand how our socialization is reinforced and reflected in the social institutions that continue to exert direct and indirect influence on us. We must know when we are acting out social routines and rituals that we were conditioned to accept. We must be able to think inside and outside our world, using the latter to critique the former.

Thinking Globally About Your Life

Every point we make in this chapter should be interpreted and qualified by every point we have made in the chapters that preceded it, especially the chapter on the design of your life. To become an effective decision-maker requires that you gain insight into your life as a whole, for the most basic patterns of thought and behavior in your life represent the most basic decisions you have made. They have continual implications for the quality of your life. You need to reflect on those patterns, analyze and assess them, if you are to make the most important decisions in your life. For example, if you assume that the most basic patterns of your life are not in need of assessment, then any mistakes implicit in those lived patterns continue to generate negative implications and consequences.

Here is a key global question. "To what extent have I questioned, or failed to question, my social conditioning?"

This question includes the sub-questions, "To what extent have I simply accepted the religion I was raised to believe, the politics I was raised to believe, the philosophy I was raised to believe, the values I was raised to believe, and the lifestyle I was raised to believe?" Of course, it is important to recognize that questioning how we have been influenced does not entail that we uncritically reject those influences. It simply means that we cease to assume that they are universally positive or necessarily represent the best choices we could make.

Evaluating Patterns in Decision-Making

How can we determine the extent to which our decision-making is irrational? In the first place, our irrational decisions often will be those we make without realizing we are making them. So let us begin with an analysis of our subconscious decisions.

If you ask yourself how many decisions you made yesterday, you probably will be puzzled as to how to determine the number. In a sense, the absolute number is unimportant. What is important is to recognize the categories of decisions you made and find a way to begin to identify and evaluate patterns within those categories.

We all have basic human needs. Consequently, we all make choices as to how to satisfy those needs. In addition, we all have chosen values and made choices in relation to those values. We all assume that our basic values support our welfare and contribute to our general well being. No one says, to himself or herself, "I choose to live in accordance with values that undermine my welfare and harm me."

And we all make choices that have implications for the well being of others. When we make decisions that undermine or harm others' well being, we make unethical decisions. When we make decisions or choose values that undermine or harm our well being, we make irrational decisions.

Some common patterns of irrational or unethical decision-making are:

These categories sound odd, for why would anyone make self-defeating or self-harming decisions? But there is a general answer to this query: immediate gratification and short-term gain. This becomes more apparent when we look at more specific categories within these categories. For example, under "Deciding to behave in ways that undermine one's welfare" are:

Clearly, we make these decisions with immediate pleasure and our short-term satisfaction uppermost in our minds. Indeed, our mind is "wired" for immediate and short-term gratification. Taking into account the long-term requires reflection. We must raise our behavior to the level, as Piaget put it, of conscious realization. Of course, we can be conscious of a problem without taking the steps to correct it. Putting our long-term insights into action requires self-discipline and will power.

When we identify a pattern of irrational decision-making in our life, we have discovered what sometimes is called a bad habit. When we replace a pattern of irrational decision-making with a rational pattern, we replace a bad habit with a good one. The replacement is at the level of action.

Because habits account for hundreds or thousands of decisions over an extended time, we can improve our decision-making significantly by identifying our bad habits and replacing them with good ones. For example, we can make hundreds of rational decisions over time by making the decision to eat healthy foods and not eat unhealthy foods. Once that decision is manifested in behavior over an extended time, it results in a productive habit.

"Big" Decisions

There are two kinds of big decisions to learn to watch for in one's life:

What is most dangerous in general are "un-thought" decisions, the decisions that creep into our lives unnoticed and unevaluated. Clearly, it is not possible to raise all decisions to the level of conscious realization, for then we would have no habits whatsoever. Rather, we aim to evaluate categories or clusters of decisions, on the one hand (big in their collectivity), and the individual big ones.

The Logic of Decision-Making

It is useful to consider the logic of decision-making. That logic is determined by the goal of decision-making and of the question that follows from that goal:

The four keys to sound decision-making are:

  1. To recognize that you face an important decision,

  2. To accurately identify the alternatives,

  3. To logically evaluate the alternatives,

  4. To have the self-discipline to act on the best alternative.

Each of these factors presents potential problems to the thinker.

Test the Idea
Thinking Seriously About Your Career

Many of us have not seriously thought through the extent to which we are satisfied in our careers. Yet clearly the decision to pursue a certain career is one of the most significant decisions we will make in our lives. Consider the following question: Should I seek a career change or continue to focus my professional energies on opportunities implicit in my present situation? Once you think through this decision, evaluate your thinking by considering the dimensions of decision-making discussed later in this chapter.

Recognizing the Need for an Important Decision

Much of the worst decision-making is the result of the failure to recognize that a decision is at hand. The result, then, is that many decisions are made subconsciously - and therefore, often, egocentrically or sociocentrically. Many decisions that people make about friends, associates, schoolwork, family, choice of amusement (including alcohol and drug use), and personal satisfaction are a result of "mindless" decisions ("It never occurred to me!" "I just didn't realize!"). These are often the "after-the-fact" explanations when the negative implications of the decisions are realized.

Accurately Recognizing the Alternatives

Recognizing that a decision is at hand is not all there is to it. We also must recognize what our alternatives are. Here, many decisions go awry because of failure to accurately identify the alternatives. This failure comes in two forms: 1) thinking that something is an alternative when it is not (thinking unrealistically), and 2) failing to recognize an alternative (thinking too narrowly).

Among the common decisions in the first category of failure are decisions that follow from the following types of thinking:

The second category of failure (thinking too narrowly) is difficult to correct, as no one believes he is thinking too narrowly (when he is). Actually, the more narrow the thinker, the more confident the thinker that he is broad-minded. A good rule of thumb is that if you can think of only one or two options when making a decision, you probably are thinking too narrowly.

We have found the following twofold rule to be useful:

RULE ONE: THERE'S ALWAYS A WAY.

RULE TWO: THERE'S ALWAYS ANOTHER WAY.

Let's now look at the process of becoming a more skilled decision-maker, in the light of what we have considered thus far.

Putting More Time into Your Decision-Making

If we don't make time for reflective thought about our decisions, we cannot improve them. A real change of behavior requires some thought about our present behavior. The key here is to recognize that we lose a tremendous amount of time through bad decision-making. It is not unusual, for example, for a couple to spend 5 or 10 years in a bad marriage before recognizing it, leaving it, and seeking a more productive relationship. People often lose years through a poor career choice. Students often lose a great deal of time by their chosen - and inefficient - mode of studying. Putting more time into our decisions, and making better decisions as a result, is going to save us a tremendous amount of time that otherwise would result from the need to correct bad decisions.

Being Systematic

People need to think through their major habits. They need to give time to the decisions they make around major needs and blocks of time: eating habits, exercise habits, free time activities, social interactions, and so forth. People have to think critically about how the habits they develop in every part of life affect the overall quality of life. For example, if you spend many hours a day playing computer games, what are some implications of the decision to do so? What important things do you not have time to do?

Dealing with One Major Decision at a Time

Speed thinking usually does not help us think well through our decisions. The more things we try to do simultaneously, and the faster we try to do them, the more likely we will be to do each of the things poorly. Because we live in a fast-paced world, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of taking our time in reasoning through the decisions we face. After making a bad decision, we sometimes say we didn't have enough time to think through the problem. But the problem usually is that we had the time but didn't take the time. In general, the more deliberate our approach to decision-making is - the more time we spend thinking through all the aspects of the problem - the better will be our decisions.

Developing Knowledge of Your Ignorance

We are ignorant about most of our decision-making. The more knowledge we gain of our ignorance (of decisions), the more thoughtful our decisions will become. Being able to recognize and face the things we don't know is instrumental in determining what we will have to figure out. We tend not to know what we need to know to make effective decisions, but the primary problem most of us face is that we think we already know everything relevant to making those decisions. We are intellectually arrogant.

Dimensions of Decision-Making

By using the elements of thought as our guide, we can identify at least nine dimensions of decision-making that represent potential problems for thought. These dimensions do not define a procedure that can be followed mindlessly or mechanically. They presuppose good judgment and sound thinking in every dimension.

To be an effective and rational decision-maker:

  1. Figure out, and regularly re-articulate, your most fundamental goals, purposes, and needs. Your decisions should help you to remove obstacles and create opportunities to reach your goals, achieve your purposes, and satisfy your needs.

  2. Whenever possible, take problems and decisions one by one. State the situation and formulate the alternatives as clearly and precisely as you can.

  3. Study the circumstances surrounding the alternative possible decisions to make clear the kind of decision you are dealing with. Figure out what implications follow from the various possible alternatives before you. Differentiate decisions over which you have some control and decisions that seem forced on you. Concentrate your efforts on the most important decisions and those on which you can have the most impact.

  4. Figure out the information you need, and actively seek that information.

  5. Carefully analyze and interpret the information you collect, drawing what reasonable inferences you can.

  6. Figure out your options for action. What can you do in the short term? In the long term? Recognize explicitly your limitations in money, time, and power.

  7. Evaluate your options in the situation, taking into account their advantages and disadvantages.

  8. Adopt a strategic approach to the decision, and follow through on that strategy. This may involve direct action or a carefully thought-through wait-and-see strategy.

  9. When you act, monitor the implications of your action as they begin to emerge. Be ready to revise your strategy at a moment's notice if the situation requires. Be prepared to shift your strategy or your analysis or statement of the kind of decision, or all three, as more information about the decision becomes available to you.

Here we will elaborate on only the first of these dimensions, to illustrate how they might be thought-through.

Regularly Re-Articulate and Reevaluate Your Goals, Purposes, and Needs

All of us live goal-directed lives. We form goals and purposes, and we seek to satisfy them. We form values and seek to acquire what they imply. We have needs and seek to fulfill them. If we were to automatically achieve our goals and purposes and fulfill our needs, we would have no problems or challenging decisions to make. A keen awareness of our goals, purposes, and needs is what often makes us aware of the importance of making a decision. Uncritical thinkers often "walk right by" an opportunity for a decision, not even recognizing that opportunity. For example, if you are in a poor relationship with a person and do not make the decision either to leave the relationship or to take active steps to improve it, the problem it represents is "un-dealt-with." Your implicit decision is to maintain things as they are.

Skilled critical thinkers regularly revisit their conceptions of what is worth pursuing. Very often, we make poor decisions simply because we are pursuing what we ought not to pursue. For example, if you define your happiness in terms of controlling the lives and decisions of the key persons in your life, you are bound to make poor decisions both for yourself and for those whom you seek to control.

Humans often seek excess - excess of wealth (greed), excess of power (domination), excess of food (an unhealthy body). And humans often make unreasonable demands on others - assuming that everyone believes what they believe, values what they value, and should act as they act. Humans often set up inconsistent standards - expecting others to be satisfied with what they themselves would not be satisfied with, or to be judged by criteria that they would resent were that same criteria applied to themselves.

Test the Idea
Creating Problems through Poor Decision-Making

Consider the following strategies for dealing with, or making, decisions. Each represents poor decision-making. Can you see why? Do you see one or more of these examples as a good way to deal with decisions?

  1. Staying in an abusive relationship for the sake of the children.

  2. Taking drugs to gain an immediate escape from the pain of facing unpleasant realities in your life.

  3. Overeating to deal with depression.

  4. Establishing an escalating "get tough" policy on crime, leading to larger and larger prison cultures that create more and more hardened criminals.

  5. Smoking to win approval in a group.

  6. Establishing an escalating "get tough" policy on terrorists, leading to more and more resentment and hatred in the groups resorting to "terrorism," leading to more violent responses.

  7. Getting angry and acting out by hitting things or people, throwing things, and shouting.

  8. Feeling self-pity when frustrated.

The Early Decisions

(211 Years of Age)

By reviewing some of the major decision-making that has shaped our lives, we can gain insight into the problems inherent in the process. For example, in our early life we are not in a position to exercise significant control over our decision-making. Our parents usually give us some opportunity to make decisions, however, when we are very young, we have limited capacity to take the long view. We are naturally dominated by the immediate, and our view of the world is highly egocentric. What is more, many parents exercise excessive control over their children's decision-making, on the one hand, or insufficient control, on the other.

When humans are very young, they need to be restrained from acting egocentrically and sociocentrically so these negative patterns can be modified as soon as possible and with as little damage to themselves and others in the meantime. Even young children, however, need to exercise power in their lives and begin to learn to accept the consequences of their own decisions. Children cannot learn to be responsible for their behavior if they are given no opportunities to make their own decisions.

One of the problems with the decisions of children is that they are often the result of the "party-line" of the peer groups to which they belong. Youth culture - with its media, movies, music, and heroes - plays a large role in the decision-making of most children. Human insecurity drives children to seek recognition and acceptance from other children. Many of their decisions and their behavior reflect an attempt to be liked by and included in their peer group. The behavior patterns that result from these decisions often become the basis of short- and long-term problems.

One way or another, the decisions made by or for us have an impact on our personality and character. Decisions influence our beliefs and attitudes, our sense of ourselves, and our sense of the world in which we live.

Test the Idea
Evaluating Childhood Decisions

Review in your mind your earliest recollections about your life as a child. See if you can remember or reconstruct some of what proved to be significant decisions either made by you or for you. Ask yourself the following questions. If you cannot answer a question, simply move on to the next:

  • To what extent did your parents give you opportunities to make decisions?

  • When did you begin, or have you not begun, to take the long view in your decisions?

  • To what extent were your early decisions highly egocentric?

  • To what extent did your parents exercise excessive control over your decision-making?

  • To what extent did they exercise insufficient control?

  • To what extent did your parents restrain you from acting egocentrically and sociocentrically?

  • To what extent would you say that you still are an egocentric or sociocentric decision-maker?

  • To what extent did you exercise power in your life as a child and begin to learn to accept the consequences of your own decisions?

  • To what extent do you think you have learned, by having to bear the consequences of your own decisions, to become responsible for your own behavior?

Adolescent Decisions

(12-17 Years of Age)

The adolescent years are important in decision-making in our lives. As adolescents, we tend to seek more independence in decision-making, though sometimes without being willing to take more responsibility for those decisions. Indeed, some adolescents seem to take the view: "I have a right to make my own decisions, but you have the responsibility to help me escape the consequences of those decisions whenever those consequences are negative."

Like the very young, adolescents seem to have limited capacity to take the long view. Their immediate view of what is happening to them is often generalized as if it were a lifelong condition (egocentric immediacy). In their desire to achieve independence, adolescents often engage in power struggles with their parents and other authority figures.

Like young children, the decisions of adolescents are often the result of the "party-line" of the peer groups to which they belong. Adolescent youth culture - again, with its media, movies, music, and heroes - plays a key role in the decision-making of most adolescents. Human insecurity drives adolescents to seek recognition and acceptance from other adolescents. Like young children, many of their decisions and behaviors reflect an attempt to achieve this end. The behavior patterns that result from these decisions often become the basis of short- and long-term problems.

Love, sexuality, and a comprehensive view of the world become important to adolescents, though each of these is often understood superficially. The basis for adolescents' conceptions of these is often drawn from movies, music, and television programs that target the adolescent population. This is a formula tailor-made for poor decision-making and bad habits.

For example, media-created heroes often are presented as successful when they use violence to defeat those who are presented as evil. In this good guys/bad guys world, everything is black or white. The evil doers use bullying and power to hurt and intimidate the weak and the good. The weak and the good are rescued only when someone who is good develops the courage to use violence against the evil doers.

In media-created romantic relationships, love is typically automatic, irrational, and at first sight, and has no real relationship to the character of the person. Adolescent media have virtually no heroes who achieve their heroic status because of rational use of their mind or knowledge.

If the decisions, behavior patterns, and habits developed in adolescence were to simply come and go with the early and adolescent years, one could simply wait them out. But this is not the case. All of us are shaped, often for a lifetime, by decisions and habits formed during these important years. As soon as possible, conscious intervention is needed.

Test the Idea
Evaluating Adolescent Decisions

Review in your mind your recollections about your life as an adolescent. Which of your decisions proved to be most significant? Ask yourself the following questions. If you cannot answer a question, simply move on to the next:

  • Can you identify some ways in which you were influenced by the media as an adolescent?

  • To what extent did your decisions during adolescence reflect an attempt on your part to gain recognition and acceptance from other adolescents? What decisions can you specify?

  • To what extent did any of these decisions become the basis for short- or long-term problems?

  • To what extent were your decisions regarding romantic relationships based on influences from youth culture?

  • Can you identify one bad habit you formed as a result of poor adolescent decision-making?

  • To what extent is your conception of love or friendship a reflection of the manner in which love or friendship is treated in movies or music lyrics?

If you have difficulty answering any of the above questions (for example, because it seems to you that you were independent in your decision-making), does it seem plausible to you that someone lives in a culture and yet is not significantly influenced by it?

Early Adult Decisions

(18-35 Years of Age)

The early adult years are important in decision-making in our lives. As young adults, we exercise more independence in decision-making, though sometimes without being willing to take responsibility for those decisions.

Like adolescents, young adults seem to have limited capacity to take the long view. Their immediate view of what is happening to them is often generalized as if it were a lifelong condition (egocentric immediacy). In their desire to achieve independence, young adults often make hasty decisions about marriage, career, and their future.

Like adolescents, young adults often make decisions that are the result of the "party-line" of the peer groups to which they belong. Young adults tend to look to other young adults for their lead. They are also strongly influenced by the mass media.

Human insecurity drives young adults to seek recognition and acceptance from other young adults. Like adolescents, many of their decisions and behaviors reflect an attempt to achieve this end. The behavior patterns that result from these decisions often become the basis of short- and long-term problems.

Love, sexuality, and a pragmatic view of the world become important to young adults, though each of these is often understood superficially. The basis for young adult conceptions of these is often drawn from movies, music, and television programs that target the young adult. This is a formula tailor-made for poor decision-making and bad habits.

If the decisions, behavior patterns, and habits developed in young adulthood were to simply come and go with the early years, one could simply wait them out. But this is not the case. All of us are shaped, often for a lifetime, by decisions and habits formed during these important years. As soon as possible, conscious intervention is needed.

Conclusion

We all live a life driven by our decisions. What is clear from this chapter is that, though no one fully masters the decisions determining the quality of life, all of us can improve our decision-making by the following three measures:

  1. Reflecting critically on the nature and role of decisions in our lives;

  2. Systematically adopting strategies that enhance the reasonability of our decision-making, in the light of that nature and role;

  3. Frequently comparing our global philosophy (or world view) with the actual facts of our lives, seeking to find our contradictions and inconsistencies and gaining a more comprehensive view of the direction and quality of our lives.

In constructing these strategies, what is in our interest is to think and act so as to maximize our awareness of:

Becoming an excellent decision-maker is not separable from becoming a good thinker. Decisions are too deeply embedded into the fabric of our lives to be treated as isolated events that we could "automatically" master. An excellent decision-maker has self-understanding, understands how to use the fundamentals of critical thinking, is well aware of the problem of egocentrism and socio-centrism in thought, and is intellectually humble, perseverant, and fair-minded.


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