How to Make Decisions You'll Still Love in Ten Years

Here's a simple, obvious trick that most people ignore.

Posted Nov 26, 2018

Pick a monster, any monster, by your standards for monsterhood ­­– the most horrible person you can imagine. Now, imagine a supporter of that monster. With devotion, dedication, faith, commitment, generosity, kindness, the supporter helps the monster.  Though all of those behaviors (devotion, dedication, etc.) sound like absolute virtues, they aren’t when they’re in support of the monster, right?

Now imagine an enemy of that monster. With judgment, negativity, anger, fighting, obstruction, resistance, violence, the enemy blocks the monster. Though all of those behaviors sound like vices, they aren’t when stopping a monster is at stake.

Reverse it. Pick a saint – any saint by your standards for sainthood, the most virtuous person you can imagine – a real do-gooder. You’re not a fan of the enemy of that saint. You are a fan of a supporter of that saint. The behaviors reverse. By your standards, loyalty to the saint is good, resistance to the saint is bad.

Behaviors that are virtues in one situation are vices in another situation. But that’s not how people tend to treat such behaviors. If you’re loyal it means your good. If you’re angry, it means your bad.

It makes you wonder.

Wondering is difficult. We, therefore, seek shortcuts. One of the easiest shortcuts is confirmation bias. If you want to defend a behavior as always virtuous, just look for examples that confirm your claim. It’s always good to be loyal. After all, these supporters were loyal to these saints. It’s always bad to oppose. After all, these people opposed this saint.

Confirmation bias shortcuts are intuitive. They affirm your gut response in the short run which is a relief. In the long run, though they can get you into trouble.

Let’s say you happen to fall in with a really bad person, for example, an alcoholic abusive spouse. In committing to them, you made loyalty a virtue. Now it’s getting so rocky that you can’t tell what to do. You could leave but that would be disloyal and disloyalty is always bad.

No, it isn’t. That’s the point here.

Loyalty to good people is a virtue.
Loyalty to bad people is a vice.
Loyalty proves nothing.

Enemies of dangerous people are good.
Enemies of good people are bad.
Having enemies proves nothing.

Negativity toward bad things is a virtue.
Negativity toward good things is a vice.
Negativity proves nothing.

Enthusiasm for good people is a virtue
Enthusiasm for bad people is a vice.
Enthusiasm proves nothing.

Hope for good things is a virtue.
Hope for bad things is a vice.
Hope proves nothing.

Faith in good things is a virtue.
Faith in bad things is a vice.
Faith proves nothing.

This may seem obvious but think how many times you’ve heard people defend their choices as virtuous because they’re exercising loyalty, faith, hope, etc. as though those behaviors are always virtuous. Think of how many times you’ve heard people attack choices as vices because it’s the exercise of negativity, having enemies, etc as though they’re always vices.

To make more successful decisions, cut the shortcuts. Stop pretending that you can tell the merits of a choice by some simple rule, for example, that loyalty is always good.

Neutralize your natural tendency toward confirmation bias with some disconfirmation bias. When someone extolls their loyalty as a sure indicator that they’re on the right track, think of loyalty to a monster, any monster, by your standards of monsterhood.

Mentioning Hitler or Stalin in debates skates you out onto thin ice. Having proudly overseen the slaughter of millions, they’re many people’s ideas of monsters, exceptionally bad people. Though perhaps it's often best not to mention them, you’ll do well to keep them in mind, because apparently, monsters like them are possible.

When someone talks about the absolute virtue of loyalty, unity, alignment, agreement, commitment, devotion, dedication, or faith, remember how badly that turned out for those who supported those monsters, or, if not them, any monster by your standards.