How Can We Better Make Decisions?

We base most of our major-life decisions on what will bring us happiness, fulfillment and arguably an epic ooze of swagger. In the scenario of getting married, we are often recommended to imagine the future of how it is like to be in a marriage. We start to think of questions such as “Am I ready to take care of my spouse?”, “Will I be a happy and content husband/wife?” and “Will my life be more meaningful when I am married?” After deliberate contemplation, if we judge that being in a marriage brings us an outcome we desire such as more happiness and fulfillment, it is concluded to be rational for us to choose to get married. On the contrary, if we go through the reflection and judge that getting married does not bring a favourable outcome, then it is rational for us to choose to remain single.

This decision making process is similar to how we choose schools, subjects, courses, career paths and romantic partners.

Typically, we determine the possible outcomes of each act we might perform before we rationally make a choice. Unless we are spineless amoeba, then we allow others to decide it for us. If not, we will (1) figure out which outcomes we want the most, (2) assign probabilities to those outcomes, and finally (3) select whichever action maximizes the probability of the best outcome. When it comes to getting married, we (1) reflect carefully on what we want (e.g. we want to be happy or fulfilled), (2) assign probabilities to these outcomes (e.g. “Is getting married likely to make me happy or fulfilled?”), and finally (3) select whichever action can be expected to produce the best outcome (e.g. “Getting married now is likely to make me happy and fulfilled. I am financially and emotionally ready for a marriage and am confident that my life is likely to be happier and more fulfilled with a spouse rather than without one. So I will get married.”)

If we were to follow such a method in making decisions, it should be right….. right?

However, think about that time when we were strongly against eating a certain kind of food or drinking a certain type of beverage. We shook our heads and rationalised that it is not our thing. But our dear friends decided that it is a good choice to force feed us like a baby and jam the entire chunk of meat into our mouth, and oh gosh, it tasted like a slice of heaven. This is an example of a transformative experience, and there are many other cases of such an experience. How about that time when we were totally not interested in going to a certain place, but when we were brought there (probably due to social pressure), we make a secret promise to come back again the next time round.

It seems like the rational decision making process does not bode well with such transformative experiences.

The rational decision making process presupposes that we can have some idea, in advance, of which outcomes are more desirable than others. But it appears that no matter how much we might assume that certain outcomes of major life decisions are more desirable than others, our life experiences will teach us that these assumptions are false. If I want to get an idea of how being married is, I may live together with my potential spouse to simulate a life closer to marriage. But does our present self have enough information about our post-experience future self to determine whether to go through with the experience of getting married? Or, going to that place with a spectacular view we never knew we would connect so deeply with?

Or, eating that ridiculously delicious chunk of meat?

There is a fundamental difference to transformative experiences that cannot be replicated to appreciate precisely how deeply transformative experiences can be. It seems that a decision being made under such uninformed circumstances is inauthentic. In the case of getting married, it is not just about the choice of whether should we get married, but it also involves us knowing what it will be like to be us in all intervals of time. In order to make this choice authentically, we need to have a first-personal grasp of our subjective values, specifically who we are when we are married. Since we cannot have a good idea of what major life choices are likely to be optimal, the only rational way to respond is to manage what is under our control. In face of a transformative experience, the solution points at revelation. The discovery of transforming ourselves is something we can value for its own sake.

Would I, based on my past self-transformation experience, want to change myself even though I do not know how I will change?

This approach preference is readily available and can be authentically judged by us. The appeal to the revelation of discovery can potentially save us from being epistemically and personally alienated by transformative experiences. All of us would agree that falling in love is a transformative experience, but have you tried falling…asleep? It feels awesome now. But wait till you age older. It feels exponentially magical.

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Terence C.

There is a fine line between fishing and doing nothing. We would like to think that we’re fishing, but the truth is we don’t have the line.