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Decisions and Values

The Art of Decision-Making

Title is a bit misleading. I expected this to be a piece about making complex decisions with imperfect information, and it is in a sense, but the actual content of the article gets closer to a discussion of values and identity — which are of no doubt instrumental in making large decisions.

It’s just that I would have liked more elaboration on quotes like these:

A scenario-planning starter kit, Johnson writes, contains three possible futures: “You build one model where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird.

Nonetheless, I liked it. One thing that I’ve always wondered about is how our own desires and preferences (or even values) can be so foreign to us even though they are supposed to function as the guiding principles of our lives. And, even if we can articulate our most valued positions, it’s difficult what it actually looks like to “be altruistic” or “live authentically.”

Perhaps this is explained by one of the theories in the article that our largest decisions aren’t “decisions” per se in that we take stock of our principles and then decide to act on them, but a result of “opting.” In short, opting is when we decide to “shift our values instead of optimizing them.” For example, if one were to “opt” to go to a certain college, it means they went not because they currently valued the the defining characteristics of the institution, but grew to value what the school had to give them. Think someone who was afraid of going to a party school and not focusing enough on coursework, but then going to the party school, throwing down, and deriving a lot of value from it. The “old person’s” values are not optimized, but the “new person’s” values are, in part because they were created partially in response to the situation.

As Maggie Rogers would say in “Give a Little” (Emphasis added).

But if you give a little, get a little
Maybe we could get to know each other
Give a little, get a little, give a little
And if you give a little, get a little
Maybe we could learn to love each other
Give a little, get a little, give a little

I do disagree with Callard’s account of aspiration as it is presented in the article, though. Callard claims that we “aspire to self-transformation by trying on the values we hope one day to posses.” The author, Rothman, gives an example of a student taking a music appreciation class to illustrate the point.

Suppose that you sign up for a classical-music-appreciation class, in which your first assignment is to listen to a symphony. You put on headphones, press Play—and fall asleep. The problem is that you don’t actually want to listen to classical music; you just want to want to.

This, Rothman/Callard claims, is the first step in transformation. Perhaps I’m being nit picky, but I think characterizing this scenario as “you just want to want to” is misleading. Clearly, you want to listen to the symphony, but the reason why it’s difficult is not because you, on some level, don’t want to, but because you haven’t built up the correct “appreciative framework” for deep engagement to happen.

I can want to watch a movie, but if I don’t have practice looking for the interesting things in a film, or the correct cinematic vocabulary to identify them, I might become bored and restless even though I actually want to watch it. You can probably experience this phenomena yourself if you sit down to watch a sport you don’t know the rules of, or read a novel set in a time period that you know nothing about.

The article is also good for the “vegemite principle.”

if you’ve never tasted Vegemite, a mysterious and beloved Australian “food spread” made from brewer’s yeast, then neither a description of what it’s like (black, gooey, vegetal) nor experience with other spreads (peanut butter, marmalade, Nutella) will suffice to tell you whether you’d like it.

If you notice any errors or believe I have given uncharitable/inaccurate accounts of the ideas in the article, please let me know. General comments are also greatly appreciated.