Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

Hard Decisions

Emotional coherence explains why important choices are so difficult to make.

In recent months, I've watched several friends and family members wrestle with important decisions, including what job to take, whether to retire, whether to sell a house, and what to do about a difficult relationship. According to economic models of decision-making, decisions shouldn't be this hard. You ought to just work out the probabilities and utilities, calculate how to maximize your expected utility, and decide. But understanding decision making as a psychological process of emotional coherence provides a much better account of why people often get so paralyzed by crucial decisions.

I am now facing a decision much less momentous than ones concerning jobs retirement, houses, or relationships. I need to choose some bookshelves for my home: some bookcases are more expensive than others, but also more attractive. On the economic model, I should be able to figure out whether to buy the cheap or the attractive bookcases based on probabilities and utilities. Then I could buy whichever shelves maximize my expected utility, calculated by a simple multiplication of probabilities and utilities.

The problem of course is that I don't know the probabilities and I don't know the utilities. It is very difficult to figure out how much happier I would be with the cheap bookcases or the elegant bookcases, and I really don't know what probabilities to attach to various outcomes. I don't know the extent to which I would notice over the long run the difference between the appearance of the cheap versus the elegant shelves, and I don't know how much I would miss the money that would go into the purchase price for the expensive ones. So how do I make a decision?

People making hard decisions often find themselves oscillating between two choices, at one moment preferring one course of action and at another moment preferring plan B. These oscillations are easily understood if you view decision making as a matter of emotional coherence, as described in my 2006 book Hot Thought, which this blog is named after. On this perspective, decision making is inherently emotional because different values get attached to different mental representations of the choices and outcomes. Decision making isn't a matter of calculation or step-by-step logical reasoning, but rather a parallel process carried out by a neural network that simultaneously tries to evaluate the attractiveness of various options. People choose an option that coheres – provides the best overall fit – with all their goals.

The reason that you may find yourself oscillating between different choices is that different external stimuli may lead you to concentrate on different goals at different moments. For example, if I get in the mail a big credit card bill and start to think about money, then the financial aspects of a decision get more weight and I am inclined to go with the cheap bookshelves. On the other hand, when I see a friend's new, attractive bookshelf, then I become more inclined toward the goal of elegance, which tips me in the other direction. I experience a kind of emotional gestalt switch, analogous to the switch between viewing an ambiguous figure as either a duck or a rabbit, depending on what part of the figure is focused on.

For my own decision making, I find it useful to draw cognitive-affective maps described in a previous post. Such pictures may not tell you what decision to make, but they can at least illuminate why it is that you are having trouble making a decision that requires balancing numerous features that do not easily reduce to probabilities and utilities. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that people are condemned to be free, which is an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that sometimes we are compelled to be indecisive.

Paul Thagard, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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