Bad decision making again. A few years ago I wrote a piece on bad decision making, and the subject seems to have forced itself into my field of vision once again.
We all make bad decisions. That’s just the way it is. Hopefully, we learn from them to make better decisions on similar matters as we go forward. On the whole, most of us, regardless of condition in life, are able to evaluate decisions that lie before us, recognize the best available choice given what we’re able to know, and act on them. It may take a while. We may have moments of uncertainty. We may ask others for advice, but in the end we make reasonably competent decisions, and live by the consequences. That’s most of us.
There are others who just can’t do it. They have long histories of making obviously bad decisions, reaping the predictably unpleasant consequences, and wondering why the world has conspired to do bad things to them. When I wrote about it the first time, I was reflecting about experiences on fire calls responding to incidents where life times of bad decision making had resulted in death. It’s not always that way. There are more habitual bad decision makers who manage to otherwise get through life one way or another.
True, substance abuse and mental illness open doors to bad decisions. An elderly semi-homeless friend (he really is a friend) suffers from mental illnesses that cause him to fantasize about the perfect place to live, which is never the place he’s in. Not long ago he got V.A. assistance to move into a brand new apartment where he could have enjoyed the rest of his life, but it wasn’t perfect. The last I heard he was living in a basement room in a small town about fifty miles from here, still looking for the perfect place.
Years of pastoral counseling have brought into my study middle class people about to lose their homes, jobs or businesses because, in the face of clear and reasonable choices to avoid it, and against all advice from those whom they’ve sought out, they make the obviously wrong decisions, ones that will bring them the very outcome they’re trying to avoid. Why? I’ve observed a recurring set of reasons forming strands tangled together. Separating the strands, they tend to look like what follows.
One is not unlike my mentally ill semi-homeless friend. Others less ill than he still have fantasies about what they want, an imagined reality with an imagined pathway to it that doesn’t correlate with reality, but they’re committed to it, certain that it will come true no matter what others say. There are enough stories about success through grit, determination, faith and perseverance to give them hope, so they just plow ahead into disaster. For some it’s a form of magical thinking involving miracles of faith, luck or fate they’re sure will materialize. For others it’s the conviction that nothing can defeat the brilliance of their plan. In a previous career, I once had a staff member who addressed every problem or goal with a complex Rube Goldberg type plan dependent on every part working to perfection. Doing things the simple way never occurred to him. It was the beauty of the plan’s complexity that he prided. None ever worked. He didn’t last long.
Another strand is a conviction that, with Emerson like self reliance, one can be in control of all decisions and outcomes affecting one’s life, all problems solved through transactional deal making with other individuals. It’s a conviction that ignores, or is ignorant of, community and the agencies of community that involve collectively working together. Self reliance is important. One-on-one transactional problem solving works a lot of the time. But it all takes place in the context of community where advocacy and decision making are collective processes. It’s why towns not only have governments, they also have chambers of commerce, service clubs, and not for profit organizations doing good things. Ignoring the value of the collective processes that make community work, and trying to go it alone based on nothing but a series of individual transactions is bound to reap bad results.
The habit of acting on intuition, or impulse, appears to be a third strand, at least in my experience. There is such a thing as well informed intuition, but impulsiveness is not it. Rex Tillerson was interviewed recently on CBS during which he observed that Trump is undisciplined, doesn’t like to read or get involved in details, and makes impulsive decisions. Trump calls it something else, a gut feeling far superior to other people’s claimed knowledge. His life long track record doesn’t give much it much credence, but everyone’s gut feeling can be right now and then, and it can be enough to strengthen confidence that this time it will work. Trump may be the most visible example, but it’s replicated many times over in the lives of people who habitually make bad decisions on important matters. Impulsiveness, intemperance, following your gut, call it what you may, it’s decision making that doesn’t bother with the hard work of objective evaluation.
It’s close cousin is dithering. Dithering can look like diligent study before making an informed decision, but it’s really a way to avoid making any decision at all, which, of course, is a decision and usually a bad one. Ditherers, fearful of making a wrong decision, spend so much time and effort considering potential pros and cons that the optimal timing of a decision passes them by, never to be recovered. Dithering may be inconsequential more often than not, but when it comes to truly important life choices, dithering has already gone in the wrong direction. Military history is filled with stories of dithering generals and admirals whose indecisiveness caused death and defeat, the very thing they wanted to avoid by having made a wrong decision. Generals and admirals may make history, but ordinary ditherers make life miserable for themselves, loved ones, co workers, and friends.
Fantasies, over reliance on self reliance, impulsiveness, and dithering may be identifiable strands, but the get tangled together like last year’s Christmas lights to make for habitually bad decisions.