Hard choices

Adam Gopnik in the latest New Yorker magazine, writing of his former teacher, McGill University psychologist Albert Bregman:

he also gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received.  Trying to decide whether to major in psychology or art history, I had gone to his office to see what he thought.   He squinted and lowered his head.  “Is this a hard choice for you?” he demanded.  Yes! I cried. “Oh,” he said, springing back up cheerfully.   “In that case, it doesn’t matter.  If it’s a hard decision, then there’s always lots to be said on both sides, so either choice is likely to be good in its way.  Hard choices are always unimportant. ” (page 35, italics in original)

I don’t agree that hard choices are always unimportant, since different options may have very different consequences, and with very different footprints (who is impacted, in what ways, and to what extents).  Perhaps what Bregman meant to say is that whatever option is selected in such cases will prove feasible to some extent or other, and we will usually survive the consequences that result.  Why would this be?    I think it because, as Bregman says, each decision-option in such cases has multiple pros and cons, and so no one option uniformly dominates the others.  No option is obviously or uniformly better:  there is no “slam-dunk” or “no-brainer” decision-option.  

In such cases, whatever we choose will potentially have negative consequences which we may have to live with.  Usually, however, we don’t seek to live with these consequences.  Instead, we try to eliminate them, or ameliorate them, or mitigate them, or divert them, or undermine them, or even ignore them.  Only when all else fails, do we live in full awareness with the negative consequences of our decisions.   Indeed, attempting to pre-emptively anticipate and eliminate or divert or undermine or ameliorate or mitigate negative consequences is a key part of human decision-making for complex decisions, something I’ve called (following Harald Wohlrapp), retroflexive decision-making.   We try to diminish the negative effects of an option and enhance the positive effects as part of the process of making our decision.

As a second-year undergraduate at university, I was, like Gopnik, faced with a choice of majors; for me it was either Pure Mathematics or English.    Now, with more experience of life, I would simply refuse to make this choice, and seek to do both together.  Then, as a sophomore, I was intimidated by the arguments presented to me by the university administration seeking, for reasons surely only of bureaucratic order, to force me to choose:  this combination is not permitted (to which I would respond now with:  And why not?); there are many timetable clashes (I can work around those);  no one else has ever asked to do both (Why is that relevant to my decision?); and, the skills required are too different (Well, I’ve been accepted onto Honours track in both subjects, so I must have the required skills).   

As an aside:  In making this decision, I asked the advice of poet Alec Hope, whom I knew a little.   He too as an undergraduate had studied both Mathematics and English, and had opted eventually for English.  He told me he chose English because he could understand on his own the poetry and fiction he read, but understanding Mathematics, he said, for him, required the help of others.  Although I thought I could learn and understand mathematical subjects well enough from books on my own, it was, for me, precisely the social nature of Mathematics that attracted me: One wasn’t merely creating some subjective personal interpretations or imaginings as one read, but participating in the joint creation of an objective shared mathematical space, albeit a space located in the collective heads of mathematicians.    What could be more exciting than that!?

More posts on complex decisions here, and here


Adam Gopnik [2013]: Music to your ears: The quest for 3D recording and other mysteries of sound.  The New Yorker, 28 January 2013, pp. 32-39.

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