A wiser approach to decision-making

by phil on Monday Mar 1, 2004 6:17 PM
decision theory

What's the primary concern inside the minds of 22-year-olds who are just now graduating from college? Their future, of course. Hearing fellow seniors pour their hearts out on what to do next is tortuous. Unfortunately, the torture will not go away, even as they move on to adulthood. There is hope however, if they learn to modify the way they make decisions.

I found insight on a wiser approach to decision-making in the March 1st New Yorker:

In the real world, neither people nor firms maximize utility. Life is complicated, the options of the marketplace are numerous, and the human intellect is frail. As Herbot Simon, the 1978 Nobel laureate in economics, observed, any firm that tried to make decisions that would "maximize" its returns would bankrupt itself in a neverending search for the best option. What firms do instead is "satisfice," to use Simon's term: they content themselves with results that are "good enough." Schwartz, who is a close reader of Simon, worries that the profusion of choices we face--a hundred variets of bug spray, breakfast cereal, extra-virgin olive oil--is turning us into maximzers, and maximizers, he thinks, are prone to misery and depression. (Caldwell, Christopher p. 91)

There it is; there's the solution. I waste hours out of my free time weighing preferences in order to decide the future, when really I should ask the following: are my decision-making methods any good? A more optimal method, as the quote suggests, is to first identify what is "good enough." Then rate the options for their levels of "satisfice." To put it in a different light, instead of ranking choices one through ten in levels of quality in various categories, rank choices in a binary fashion as either acceptable or not. This process flattens the values of each choice, thus reducing the agony in comparing minor differences. In other words, don't ask whether a certain choice is the "best of the best," but rather if it would "do the job."

Choosing is a luxury of the haves, and so opportunity should not be squandered. However, in my personal experience, the actual content of my life was not correlated to my happiness as much as my attitude was. I've found many instances where I was just able to adapt and get used to things. Sure, there are situations that I could never adapt to, and so those should be rejected. But for the most part, most reasonable options should be good enough for those who are moderately capable.

While being a satisfier instead of a maximizer may not get you the best choice, one guaranteed result is that you will be satisfied. And isn't that ultimately why you are choosing in the first place?

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