23 November 2008

Making a decision and regretting it

Right from my childhood days, my parents tried to instill in me many life lessons that they themself had learned the hard way. We too do the same to our kids. The obvious reason for this being our utmost aspiration to protect the children from regrettable occurrents in future. However, as much as we try to protect our children from themselves and their bad decisions, unfortunately, we learn that they must usually find out through the school of hard knocks. I think, both school of thoughts coexist: Experts teaching lesson to newbies and thus influencing the later's potential decisions and; on the other hand, people willing to be adventurous with their decision and risking the fate of an outcome. There can be a long debate on the merits and shortcomings of both ways of taking decisions. But, one thing is true: we take desicions and many times, regret it.

I recall several of my decisions taken at different stages (and of course, there are more to follow!). Needless to mention, few of them are quite regrettable. Making decisions is one of the most difficult tasks people face. Why it is so? Probably, because we have multiple choices available before any decision. If there is only one choice available before taking a decision, even if the outcome is bad, we would not complain. But when the number of choices grows, the difficulty increases exponentially. Here are some of the non-scientific decision making ways that I have come across:
  • Flipping a coin: It may be a useful tool for taking the decisions when there is no or very little idea about the future. For example: getting married; even though there are billions of examples around, we never know what will happen to our conjugal life.
  • Decision based on superstition: At times, superstition could be a mean to making good decisions. If a black cat runs across the road in our way, sometimes; it may be wise thing to turn back. I know, many of my friend will not agree to the cat's example. But the point I want to make is, to act according to our hunch. Hunches can be just as valuable as knowledge.
  • Random decision: People say that, at times, random decisions can be even better than a well-thought and planned decisions. If we have to choose a movie to watch tonight, and we don't have a good idea, we can go for one that begins with our favorite letter.
  • Decision based on experience: There is a problem with this kind of decision making. If the previous decision turned out to be a good one, then fine; but it sucks if it was a bad one.
I was wondering if there is any appropriate way of taking decisions. There is in fact! It says: First, identify what decision is you have to make; then narrow down your choices and decide step by step. However, it is easier said than done. And most of the times, we don't have a clear cut understanding of the sequence of outcomes that will inevitably happen in future. A fundamental rule in decision making is to figure out the "opportunity cost" of a decision before it is made, not after. It is a concept taken from economics. For example, if a person has, say, 25 Rupees and has a choice to buy between coke and a magazine. If he chooses to buy the coke, he won't have any money left to buy the magazine. Thus, if he uses his money to enjoy a coke, he cannot then allow himself to feel bad for not being able to read the magazine.

But, for a normal people, this opportunity cost stuff is too complex thing to rationally calculate and implement while taking the decision. The human mind despite of being a splendid device, is nevertheless, not without limits. Research has focused on a particular mental limitation, which has to do with our ability to use a mental trait known as executive function. When you focus on a specific task for an extended period of time or choosing between two options, you are flexing your executive function muscles. Both thought processes require conscious effort. If this resource is exhausted by one activity, our mental capacity may be severely hampered in any other unrelated activity.

The problem is not only with too many choices available while making a single decision, but also multiple associated decisions to be made at the same period. Imagine, for a moment, that you are facing a very difficult decision about which of two job offers to accept. One position offers good pay and job security, but is pretty boring, whereas the other job is really interesting and offers reasonable pay, but has questionable job security. Obviously, you will find yourself in a dilemma on opting a particular offer. At this point, if you have some other decision to make then your decision to accept a particular job offer is likely to be influenced by the third seemingly unrelated decision. Hence, It is said that if you are exhausted by making several minor decisions, you should avoid taking any major decision for some time. Our stressed brain may not be in a good shape to make any important decision.

We have so far discussed about capricious approach of taking decisions as well as, the amount of influence that minor decisions can potentially make to a major one. I have made several decisions that I regretted afterward. I think all of us do the same. Many people emphasize on the fact that there is no point to regret. It may cause stress in our brain and may hamper the future decisions. However, we can't stop regretting if the decision we took was through a conscious effort. On the other hand, some make decision to only regret it. Does it mean that we should take a non-scientific route while arriving at some particular decision? Because, if we made the bad decision by some arbitrary and capricious method (such as flipping a coin) it is much easier to dump the decision and move on.

I believe that most of you may have faced dilemma while deciding on major issues particularly with too many choices available. What, in your opinion, would be the best way to take any major decision?

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Ramesh B on November 24, 2008 at 7:19 AM said...

Deependra ji, thanks for such a realistic and informative post. In many cases, we can learn from both bad and good decisions by analyzing why the decisions were bad or good, and make our future decisions more perfect. But there are several "big" and once-in-a-lifetime decisions with long-lasting consequences, in which case we should rigorously evaluate before deciding. Sadly, many people, including myself, don't think too much before taking decisions, and regret later.

Dilip Acharya on November 24, 2008 at 8:19 AM said...

Thanks for this Perfect analytical post.

But my own experiences tells that, however we take decisions, there still may me 'room' for repenting. Because making 100% perfect decision is always impossible and we mature by experiences and after certain 'maturity' the past decision seems 'immature'

Sujit Thakur on November 24, 2008 at 11:33 AM said...

Dear Deependraji,

You have wonderfully illustrated the complexity of decision makings, I too believe sometimes decision making becomes very stressing provieded the multiple alternatives in hand.
Whether we repent the decisions we make or not that entirely depends on the changing environment. Sometimes we end up regretting doing something because of the unexpected unfurling of the future events though we knew we had taken the best decision at that particular point of time.
I believe decision making can be simpler if we have a similar pattern of thoughts. Most of us has a tendency of calculating the success or failure of a crucial decision taken and again the calculation can be made based on multiple dimensions which differ from person to person. sometimes we are forced to regret something because of others' perception though we heartedly appreciate our decisions. I believe if any decision that is closer to oneself and self convincing , we should go ahead with that despite people around us may think it was a wrong decision. If we have a tendency of getting carried away with other's sentiments then we may more often regret. I think being yourself can definitely reduce the tension of making a decision and regretting it afterwards.

Warm Regards,

Sujit Kumar Thakur
Gaur-13, Rautahat

Lukmanul Hakim on November 25, 2008 at 5:34 AM said...

I like this post.
To me, decision should be made after careful thoughts of future consequences it may result. However, this leads me to becoming very much conservative and cautious and never made significant decision after all (I guess). And the older I am getting, the more conservative I am as described genuinely by Cat Stevens in his song "Father and Son".

Hasitha on November 25, 2008 at 1:59 PM said...

A very interesting post indeed. I think you should also add spontaneous (heat of the moment) decision making to your list too. Which I believe is the most dangerous of them all. Because sometimes we make vital decisions based on our emotions, without really thinking it through, which could come back to haunt us for the rest of our lives. Especially those made with anger, betrayal or revenge.

In a way I think emotions are there to help us make decisions when a multitude of variable are presented. A friend of mine once suggested me this idea, and I think it is quite true. Because how else would you explain feelings and emotions like love and anger? What good are they to us, and why do we have them, if not to make decisions that we cannot make with pure logic and reasoning?..... Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post!
We have no control over what talents we are born with or without. We have no control over luck. We do have a choice as to how hard we work, but the most powerful factor affecting our lives is our ability to make wise decisions. When we are making a decision that affects us personally it is very hard to remain objective and think clearly through to the best solution. The more important the decision the more likely “outcome apprehension” will inhibit clear thinking and good decision-making.
The steps to making good decisions could be, but not limited to, the followings:
1. Be clear about what to decide
2. Gather facts and set criteria
3. Develop options
4. Evaluate options and assess risk
5. Make the decision and follow through
Having said it all, I would admit that there cant be any short cuts to rational decision making. It may depend upon person, period of time and emotions of the person at that particular time etc.
Thanks once again for this wonderful analytical post.

Sujit Kumar Thakur on November 26, 2008 at 11:42 PM said...

Dear Jhaji,

Thanks a lot for your time to visit my blog , it is my privilege to have your comment there. I just tried to focus that issue as a commoner. In Nepal, it is an everyday problem. I would be highly obliged if I could communicate with you in days to come!
I have heard a lot about you from my very good friends Raushan Jha and Sujit Kumar Jha.

Warm Regards,

Sujit Kumar Thakur

DEEPENDRA on November 27, 2008 at 7:02 AM said...

Thanks to all for putting your thoughtful comments. I am glad that most of you found this post interesting.
Dilipjee, you have righly pointed out the fact that after we acquire certain amount of 'maturity', the past decision seems 'immature'.
Sujitjee, welcome to this blog! and thanks for sharing your opinion on making decisions. Interesting thoughts indeed! Hope to hear from you again.
Hasitha, Thanks for adding an important dimension to the post. yes, spontaneous decisions may be, at times, dangerous. It is interesting to note your perception that if we cannot make decisions based on pure logic and reasoning, then we should go by our emotions.
I appreciate 'Anonymous' friend for giving such an elaborated idea on rational decision making process.

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