In this chapter, we’ll look at what happens before we make a decision, before we say, “in or out”, why we struggle to make a decision, and who is actually making the decision. In the next chapter, we’ll walk through the factors that precede and determine the decision-making process.
Why Do We Struggle to Make a Decision?
We often struggle to make what appears to be a simple decision on the surface. So why is it so hard for us to decide these things? What’s going on under the surface? To understand this better, let’s look back at my “Superman or Pirate” dilemma. As simple as the decision was, why was it so hard for me to decide?
Firstly, when we make a decision, it’s important to realize that we are comparing things. So, what was I comparing in those two choices? Maybe I was comparing how I looked in the mirror when I wore each costume, then comparing myself to my friends, wondering whether I would look different to or better than my friends? Or perhaps I had seen this outfit somewhere and wanted to look just like that. But why was I stressed to the extent that I cried from confusion?
From a very young age, we learn to compete, to aspire to role models or diverse cultures, and we learn to try new things. As such, our confusion when making decisions stems from an internal struggle to explore new ideas and our competitiveness to get the best out of both (or multiple) choices. The costume problem had two main constraints: time and logistics, as I couldn’t wear two costumes at the same time.
The competition aspect of our lives started a long time ago, when millions of sperms competed to fertilize one ovum, which is released every month and was chosen from around 2 million ova. Then in the playground, we played together and learned the win or lose concept. We went to school and were graded on our participation in every class and every paper we wrote. We finished high school and got accepted into college, or not, according to our grades.
Even when you’re not aware of it, this competition aspect is working under the surface when you make decisions. For example, a study showed that people tend to choose relative advantage compared to absolute position. This meant that respondents of the survey preferred to earn less, but it is more than their peers (having a relative advantage), rather than to make more money, but it is less than their peers (having an absolute position).
Similar results were shown regarding intelligence and attractiveness, their child’s intelligence and attractiveness, or praise from a superior.2 For example, people may choose to have a child with someone who has a lower IQ that is higher than their peers, rather than to have a higher IQ that is lower than their peers—all because of this inherent competition in us.
However, not all people are competitive to the same level. Everyone has their own pace, choosing when to run and when to walk. Furthermore, everybody has their own personal standards and style, and this is where the exploration aspect comes in—whereas humans, we seek new things.
Exploration preceded competition, and this all started tens of thousands of years ago, with the story of Adam and Eve exploring the forbidden tree according to theological beliefs. Why did they explore the tree against their creator’s words? Why do people hike thousands of miles up the highest mountains when they know the dangers? Why do people smoke despite all the studies showing its harmful consequences?
On the other hand, why do we drink the same kind of coffee every day? Why do we read the same news sources every day? Why do we stick to our jobs and complain every day that we are not happy?
Explore vs. Exploit
These two options are generally known as “explore” and “exploit.” The concepts of explore vs. exploit are usually used in combination by mathematicians, where “explore” means keep gathering information and searching, and “exploit” is using the information you have and acting.
Every day, we are faced with decisions where we must choose between these two choices: explore or take action. Many statisticians have tried to solve this dilemma mathematically3. However, you will not solve the problem of ordering pizza and staying at home versus going out with friends to the club using mathematical equations and index tables, as it is impractical.
Many decisions can’t be decided using mathematics alone. Think of it this way. You walk into a toy store with your child. She grabs more than one toy and wants to get both. You tell her, “Honey, you need to decide, you can’t have both.” She starts to grimace, you insist, and the crying tantrum begins.
Although mathematics tells us that we can afford to buy both toys, why don’t we make that decision? Here, we have two primary constraints: money and morality. This is the first economic lesson for your child—you have the money to buy both toys, but you don’t do it because you need to teach her to manage limited resources when she grows up. The other lesson here is a moral one: not everything you wish for you can get. In saying no, you teach her to be modest and simple and to have patience.
As you can see, there’s more going on here than simple mathematics. In fact, many factors determine how we make decisions, and they can be divided into internal and external factors, which we’ll explore in detail in the next chapter.
Who Makes Decisions?
“We are not just a collection of cells, we are alive”
Before diving into the pre-decision factors, we need to answer the question: who is making the decision? Many people tell you what to do, however it’s you who has to decide. But who are you? Who really makes the decisions? Have you ever thought of dissecting yourself to see who you are? Perhaps you don’t need to because the science of anatomy has done this for you, and books are already filled with Latin acronyms for your body parts.
Whether we like it or not, we are the children of our parents, we come to life through an ovum sprung from a woman's ovary and an inseminating sperm from a man, and we are raised in our mother’s womb or a surrogate mother’s womb. We enter the world with a body of millions of cells and a grand opening day speech of crying and screaming.
From day one, we are confronted with choices, some of which are forced, and others we have the luxury of choice. We make decisions based on our learned values, experience, feelings, parents, or a friend’s advice, and sometimes it is just a pure luck shot. Our mind, body, and soul affect and is affected by these decisions.
For the most part, we are in control of our decisions, and our mind is conscious of what happens to us. Except perhaps when we are under anesthesia, such as when a doctor is performing an operation and us, and our mind is absent—we can’t remember what happened to us after. Similarly, when we are under the influence of drugs or drinks, we may make unexpected and unwanted decisions that we later regret and do not recognize as being our own.
When we die, we leave our bodies like dead wood, with a still heart and lungs and a state of total paralysis, while people surround us or put us in a grave while crying. It’s the soul that leaves the body for different voyages, according to your beliefs.
For any decision we make, our mind works it out, our soul is touched by it, and our body might be the tool to implement the decision. On the other hand, any decision we make might affect our body, mind, or soul.
We are made of body, mind, and soul.
We are the creators and the products of our choices.
Now you understand why we struggle to make decisions due to our instinct for exploration and our competitiveness. You also know who is making the decision. Now we’ll look at the factors that influence our decision making, starting with the hard internal factors.