Elaborate Self-Justifications for Decisions You Already Made


Choice Paralysis by Lauren McDonald

I'm facing a big decision, and a couple of friends have recommended trying to tackle it in a structured way – say, by writing down a list of pros and cons and trying to weigh them up systematically. My problem here is that I've watched a number of friends go through that process in the past and my (very rough) feeling is that often, in the end, they're just coming to more a rigorously-structured justification for the decision they had already made. Of course, if you're going to do that then you might as well just go with your gut decision already and skip sinking time and energy into post-hoc justifications. [Note: I appreciate that it would be hard to differentiate whether people are post-hoc justifying their already-made decisions or whether their intuitive preferences and their rigorous procedure actually led to the same conclusion independently, in any specific case; I'm just saying that, in general, I'm suspicious that a seemingly-systematic review can easily turn into an elaborate self-justification ritual].

I put out a note asking my friends if they had ever made a big decision by going through a systematic process and made a different choice, in the end, to the one they were originally leaning towards. Here are some useful answers I got:

  • One friend said he changed his mind about a major decision after going through a rigorous evaluation process but only because he talked to a number of smart people about the decision and they all disagreed with his original assesment about the options; eventually, one of them sent him an email that convinced him to go with the option he'd originally been disfavouring. In his view, the thing that made the structured process actually worthwhile was that he got input from other people (who he thought highly of).

  • Another wise friend said that he suspected an individual designing their own systematic process would most-likely fail to design a process that counteracted their own biases and blind spots, and fail to consider the full spectrum of options available, and that this is why the "early favourite" is most likely to win anyway.

    This struck me as a great point, and got me thinking about the possibility of asking a friend to set up the structured decision-making process on my behalf: that way the process wouldn't be biased by my own blindspots (although it might be biased by my friend's ones). But... to be totally honest, if a friend set up the decision-making process and it came to a conclusion that was different to what I'd wanted to do, would I actually follow the outcome? I think that would be hard to.

  • Finally, one friend explained that she had used a systematic process to decide where to go to grad school. She made a list of everything that mattered to her (employment statistics, cost of living, location) and weighted those criteria according to importance. Then she made a column for each school she was considering and scored the schools on each criteria. It turned out that one school came out far ahead on most of her top criteria, and also ahead on many of her lower criteria... and it wasn't the school that she'd originally been leaning towards.

    This made sense to me, because it was a relatively constrained decision: she'd already decided to go to grad school and the question was just "which one?", which meant that all of the options were very directly comparable on the same traits (even though I'm sure there were some difficult judgment calls to make about scoring and about weights). The big question I have is "how would you successfully implement that procedure for a more open-ended question?", such as choosing between grad school and a job and travelling the world for two years. It's that case, I think, where everything is so much fuzzier and harder to define, that puts you most in danger of designing an elaborate procedure that just self-justifies your original leanings.

Thanks to everyone who sent me wise thoughts on the topic, and if you have any more ideas I'd be very happy to hear about them, I'm still very much figuring this one out. Decisions decisions decisions....


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