Making decisions

I’ve been working intently on a paper recently so I had to take a break from posting. Amazingly, traffic to this blog didn’t really fall as I took a break, a sure sign that people, old and new are making their way through the posts.

I want to talk about making decisions, but I also want to share this awesome invention.

Back to decisions then. Philosophers distinguish between practical reason and theoretical reason. In theoretical reason, we decide what to believe, and even the word “decide” is deceptive, because we can’t just believe anything we want. Rather, we judge what we should believe on the basis of evidence and by concluding our judgment, we create a new belief in ourselves. If you don’t believe me, try to believe something that you think that all the evidence, taken together, supports. You can’t do it. Belief follows judgment.

Practical reason is about reasoning about what to do. Here things are much more open ended. In theoretical reason, we know what we want, which is the truth. If we judge something to not be true, we cannot believe it. But in practical reason all sorts of values can be relevant.

Anyway, my friend sent me this article about making decisions (thanks Jesus), and I think in many ways it’s spot on. There are people who always have to think every decision to death and there are those who are more comfortable just surveying things and quickly deciding, in a dramatically decisive fashion, what to do. According to the article, this is a psychological feature about humans. Some people like to keeping thinking and others prepare to act.

There are many interesting things to note. One is that making detailed decisions requires taking time and time has a cost. So, when doing research on a decision, one has to try and weigh the cost of one’s time against the likely value of the new information that will be gained by the decision. Weighing of this kind is really hard to do because by definition you don’t know the information you will discover by doing more research. So imagine you’ve been doing research on where to apply to law school for 5 hours. Should you go for another hour? You know what the hour will cost you: your hourly wage if you have a job or an hour of fun with friends, however you rate that, or an hour of sleep which I personally rate very highly. What you don’t know is what the hour will gain you. In that time you might find something about the UVA that will effectively decide the matter of where to apply or you might decide you don’t want to be a lawyer at all, a discovery that is worth TONS of saved time, money, and stress.

Things are doubly hard though because not only do you not know what you’ll find out in the marginal hour of research, but you don’t even know if returns to research increase or decrease over time. As with all things, its most likely that research becomes less valuable the more you do of it. If this is true, then the stuff you discover during hour eight (the names of Professor so and so’s pet dog) is going to be much less important than the things you figured out in the first hour of research (say, the average LSAT score of the school you’re applying to).

Importantly though, new information is different than the skill with which one puts together ideas. So even if returns to research decrease over time, returns to thinking might actually increase. One thing is for sure, snap decisions, even with perfect information are usually pretty bad, which returns me to this article. I don’t think the complexity of decisions is MERELY psychological. Rather, I think complexity is a FEATURE OF THE WORLD, meaning that on average, more thinking results in a much better life lived. As a general rule, when I’m asked a question, I respond with “Let me think about it.” This small rule I’ve found helps me make enormously better decisions.

Still, as I’ve said on this blog many times, sometimes snap decisions are better, especially when interacting with the opposite sex. Thinking something through might help you find a good job or write a good article, but thinking about what to say to someone you like is almost a recipe for failure. Instead, instinct and intuitive understanding is what’s prized.

But I digress. I was talking about thinking longer about something versus thinking shorter. In philosophy, there are INCREASING returns to thinking so that what you figure out in hour 10 is almost guaranteed to be better than what you figured out in hour 1. This is why a) most philosophers do their best work when they’re older, unlike mathematicians who often reach the peak of their abilities early (prodigy phenomenon) and b) most philosophers spend their whole lives on seemingly silly problems. B is more interesting to me I think, because it often explains why its necessary to obsess about a problem and think about it night and day for many years (possibly one’s whole lifetime) before real progress can be made. Then again though, making a philosophical theory is not practical reasoning (about what to do) but merely theoretical.

Almost certainly, practical reasoning starts to give decreasing returns to thought after some, probably short, amount of time (like 20 minutes).


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