Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

When Should You Second-Guess Yourself?

When is a person like Buridan's ass?

Hi, I'm Mark, and I'm a pathological second-guesser. I spend a tremendous amount of time questioning my own decisions, to the point where I resemble Buridan's ass, who died from hunger and thrist after being unable to choose between two equally good options (a pail of water and a bale of hay) equally distant from it. I can't tell you how much time I've wasted walking or driving around because I keep flipping between eating out and eating in, meanwhile growing hungrier every minute. And that's just the tip of the iceberg—today, I'm considering pulling out a conference later this year, after being accepting on the program and buying the plane tickets.

Clearly, this a problem. (Or is it? Yes, it is... but wait, maybe not...) But what kind of problem is it? There are many ways to characterize these problem, but I'll pick a way that I've discussed before in the context of procrastination: a lack of self-respect. In an earlier post, I talked about how procrastination, or weakness in will in general, betrays a lack of self-respect in that such a person fails to respect the choices and plans she committed herself to in the past.

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For example, if Judy decides to learn to play the violin, but then repeatedly puts off practicing, she is letting herself down—and even though there is nothing inherently ethical (or unethical) in learning the violin, there is a lack of character evidenced by not following through with your deliberately made plans. We can assume Judy spent some time choosing whether to learn an instrument and then which one to take up, and she made that decision for certain reasons. If those reasons still hold, she should respect her earlier decision and maintain a regular practice schedule. More easily said than done, of course, but she owes it to herself to try.

But what if Judy's failure to practice isn't a result of procrastination or weakness of will? What if Judy decides, just as deliberately and reasonably as before, that playing the violin isn't what she wants to do? This is what philosophers calls rational reconsideration, and we definitely don't want people to avoid this type of reconsideration—but we have make sure Judy is really engaging in the rational kind. Perhaps she discovers that learning to play comes at some unforeseen cost, such as unexpected physical pain, or simply that she doesn't enjoy playing as much as she anticipated. These may be cases of rational reconsideration; if she had realized these things when she originally chose to take up the violin, she may have made a different choice.

What typically doesn't count as rational reconsideration is when you change your mind for the very reason you made the commitment in the first place. Another example: John decides to give up eating donuts because they're bad for his health. He makes this commitment to himself because he knows how much he loves the taste of donuts, so he has to exert willpower, or use some external coping mechanism, to keep away from donuts. One day, he decides to give in and have a donut because they just taste so darn good. This would not count as rational reconsideration, because his "rationale" was precisely what he made the commitment to fight against! On the other hand, if he had decided to have a donut because his coworkers were all having them and he didn't want to stand out, that may be rational reconsideration (insofar as this motivation is sincere and not just a rationalization), since that is a unique situation and one that merits revisiting the original choice.

The same concept can be applied to second-guessing decisions that don't seem to rise to the level of commitments per se, such as whether to eat out for lunch today. Let's say I decide to go out to eat, for any number of reasons: it's a nice day, I haven't eaten in a while, there's only so many ways to dress up a Pop-Tart, etc. But halfway there, I start to rethink this decision: maybe I don't need to go out, I could just sit by the window, I haven't tried deep-fried Pop-Tarts yet, etc. According to the same concept of self-respect mentioned above, I shouldn't be second-guessing a decision I made for sound reasons before, especially if nothing has changed that would have affected that judgment. If circumstances had changed—it starts to rain, for example, or a friend calls to invite me out for dinner later that day—then those are legitimate reasons to reconsider (similar to rational reconsideration). But second-guessing the decision I made earlier, on the same grounds on which I made the original decision, even though nothing had changed—that shows I have little faith in my judgment.

For the depressed, especially those suffering from manic depression, this becomes even worse. Negative thinking is very commonly associated with depression (in different ways depending on the school of thought), and this can include having little regard for your own judgment. "Sure," Jennifer thinks to herself, "I decided to go to the movies tonight, but was that really a good decision? Did I take all factors into account? I probably didn't, did I? Maybe I shouldn't go... it was a bad idea from the start." And for the manic depressive, decisions made during high points, when the person feels good and life looks relatively promising, are subject to reconsideration during the low points, when things look bad again, and then again during the next high point. So Jennifer may well bounce back later, change her mind, and decide to go to the movies after all. Until, that is... well, you get the idea.

So there are times when second-guessing is appropriate, namely when some circumstances or standards have changed, which represents good reasons to revisit the original choice. But second-guessing is not appropriate, and is likely to be detrimental, when nothing has changed to invalidate the original decision, and the reconsideration reflects a lack of faith in your judgment and reasoning. Try to remember that you made that original decision for a reason—and trust that it was a good reason—and follow through with it. And if it proves to be the wrong decision, take that into account and make a better decision next time. As they say, the only truly bad decision is one never made, and therefore never learned from.

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Please follow me on Twitter and also at the Economics and Ethics blog and The Comics Professor blog. (No second guessing allowed.)

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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