On Good and Bad Decisions

I am next to a swimming pool in my home and both a fish and a little bear swim very fast in it. In my bedroom, a brown rabbit hops around and a mouse tries to find her way into the folds of a crumpled blanket lying on me. I try to get rid of the mouse, who keeps escaping me. But finally I can catch her by the tail and put her outside. The rabbit is obviously my pet and does not bother me. In the kitchen the cook rehearses a play. He is cross-dressed as a female cook and ends up above the ceiling rafters erupting into a belting sound while grimacing and being filmed. A black gentleman on a majestic black horse enters the scene and lifts the cook onto the horse. The horse stares into my eyes.

This is what I dreamt the night after I lost all the work I had done on this blog, because I made the ‘bad decision’ of not re-saving the work I had done after the computer did something funny. The blog was finished. I lost it all and had to start from scratch. It was 11:45 at night.

For a moment I was furious, but then soon forced to heed my own pronouncement I explain later in this blog, that there is no such thing as a bad decision unless it is taken carelessly, in haste or with a disturbed mind. Mind you, maybe I had a disturbed mind this late at night, but I thought I had done a very good job with my blog. So I went to bed stressed and did not have a restful night’s sleep. On my way to sleep I asked for guidance during the night to find the inspiration to tackle the business of rewriting my blog the next morning.

We are often afraid of taking bad decisions and strive to take good ones. Barbara as I will call a patient of mine, recently brought this problem to light in a dramatic fashion, when she displayed a panic-size fear of taking bad decisions.

Apart from exploring some of the psychodynamic reasons for her anxiety, which included being raised by rather controlling and overanxious parents, I also asked her to define what a bad or good decision is. Her answer seemed obvious, as we all would probably define it in the same way. A good decision turns out to yield good results, a bad one bad results. In other words, attributing a valence (whether it is good or bad) to a decision as we usually do is always a judgment after the fact, since at the time of making the decision we cannot possibly know the future, even less our decision’s outcome. Such a judgment after the fact presupposes that we impute to the moment of decision-making a knowledge that was not available at the time. Our brain being an associative organ, when untrained it very easily and readily connects experience contents together that have nothing to do with each other, and then makes it appear as if they belonged together. This leads to an impossible quagmire: At the time of decision-making we can become extremely anxious because we impute the capacity of attributing a valence to our decision at the time of decision-making, when this is in fact impossible, and when the result of our decision turns out to be less than desirable, we beat ourselves up for not having the power of foresight and being able to foretell the future. Very exhausting!

We therefore have to begin to tease out the different elements of decision-making in order to understand what is really going on and put an end to our suffering.

There are immediately three problems with the definition Barbara gave. One is that the decision is defined in terms of future results nobody can ever predict, since the future is unknowable. One cannot include unknowable future information in the definition of a good or bad decision just before or at the time of decision-making. The second problem is that attributing a valence to a decision such as good or bad is very arbitrary. Good means that the outcome pleases or meets our expectations, bad is what disappoints or doesn’t meet expectations. Does that really make sense? Cannot a disappointing outcome sometimes be very good and vice versa? Thirdly, unforeseen events, so called outliers, routinely occur after we have taken our decision, that completely change the landscape of our lives. Such events are prone to create a distortion in our thinking, causing us to retrospectively construct a sense of badness and weave it into our perception of the decision-making process, even though we were fairly certain at the time of decision-making that we had taken a good one.

The first problem has to be addressed by using available information at the present moment of decision-making. We can only make decisions considering the circumstances of the moment. Present circumstance has two aspects: an external and an internal one. External circumstance we mostly cannot control. It is what reality presents to us in the moment, including the physical location we find ourselves in, the historical and local events of the time and the time available to make the decision. Internal circumstance is a different story. It means the psychological state we are in at the time of decision-making, particularly to what degree we are attuned to and integrated within ourselves, have a clear view of the situation and have access to information and knowledge that is important for decision-making. How much access to information and knowledge we have can only be partially controlled through diligent fact-finding and reaching out to people who can be helpful to us.

Human knowledge is finite and the unknown or unknowable far vaster than our knowledge will ever be. As long as we do our homework of finding out as much as we can at the moment of decision-making, we need to develop the necessary humility to know that our decision-making will always be tentative and limited in its power to put in motion the future we envision for ourselves. Clear view has to be trained. The ability to think clearly and sift through the complex entanglement of our physical sensations, feelings, thoughts and intuitions, is not just given to us. If we haven’t learned it in our childhoods through intelligent and attuned parenting, we have to acquire it through our own work of self-discovery. Attunement and integration is also the result of good parenting or later self-exploration.

The likelihood of making ‘good’ decisions thus increases with increasing capacity for humility, clear view and attunement to ourselves. However, it would be foolish to think that we will always be optimally humble, clear and attuned every time we make a decision. And even if we are, or think we are, the human capacity for self-deception is limitless. We can therefore never make the perfect decision, but only the best possible one considering the circumstances of the moment. We can only make perfectly imperfect decisions.

The second problem is our attribution of valence to decisions. Can a decision ever be good or bad, unless it is taken carelessly or in a mentally disturbed state? We can certainly feel more or less on top of things in the moment of decision-making, but given that we have presumably done what we can to make the best possible decision, our sense of comfort or discomfort cannot possibly be a measure for the valence of the decision itself. The decision is always just what it is, a decision, neither a good or a bad one.

Moreover, decisions that turn out to lead to less than desirable outcomes are opportunities for looking at the circumstances of the decision-making moment with fresh eyes, looking at old unskillful patterns we repeat even though they lead to undesirable results, and engaging in new creative actions in the moment. Take the invention of sticky notes for example. The researcher involved was working on trying to synthesize a super-strong glue for airplane wings I believe. Unbeknownst to him his team made a calculation mistake, and when they went to manufacture it, the glue turned out to be super-weak. While working on correcting the problem he had this flash of insight that his super-weak glue could be used for other purposes, thus the sticky notes. Take Roosevelt, who became president of the United States despite having his brilliant career as a congressman cut short by polio, which paralyzed him and subsequently caused a state of deep depression. How about Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, my former Zen teacher, who had his major enlightenment experiences while on death row for a year after the second world war, then went on to become the first Westerner to bring Zen to the West? And what about the person who misses a flight to attend an important meeting because they tried to squeeze in a task before leaving, and later hears on the news that the plane they would have taken crashed? History abounds with such examples, making it clear to my mind that it is nothing but hybris to judge decisions we make as either good or bad. They are simply the best possible ones considering our circumstances at the time of decision-making, just good-enough – no more is possible. Once the decision is made, the rest is but further fodder for the inquiring mind to grow and learn, to stretch known boundaries and walk towards the sunset of wisdom.

After these reflections Barbara’s anxiety had all but disappeared. She now felt empowered that she could make a necessary decision knowing, that right from the outset she only had limited information, and that she was not in a position to feel confident about her decision, because she did not know exactly what she really wanted. Her decision was going to be a tentative one, which could lead her to a place she does not presently feel she wants to be in. However, she was now free to embrace the imperfection of her decision, open to tackling the possibility of a less than desirable outcome with openness, curiosity, flexibility and creativity, learning from the process in the meantime. All her life her overanxious parents had raised her to obey and follow their decisions without making her own. This ended up causing her untold anxiety and stress. In this situation she pleaded with me to make a decision for her. What was entirely new for her was my guidance in simply teasing out the intricacies of her situation in detail, thus freeing her to see clearly and come to make her own perfectly imperfect decision, without me ever telling her what would have been the right or wrong one. Her relief was palpable.

This version of my blog is more complete than the original one I lost the previous day. I ended up doing a better job the next day than I had done the day before. Losing it all led me to have a disturbed night in between the two versions, and the question is whether my dream answered my prayers for inspiration. It is quite chaotic, partly expressing my stressed state, but also giving me the gift of having to hold this seemingly incomprehensible chaos under the one umbrella of my awareness. My blog last night was more left-brain logically constructed at the expense of creativity, thus not doing as much justice to the complexity of this topic. My writing today was more fluent, weaving left-brain logic to a much larger extent into right-brain contextual complexity than yesterday. This allowed me, I believe, to capture the topic in a more complete way without losing its logical threads.

The number of animals in the dream is significant. They were the center theme weaving through it all. It felt to me as if I was invaded by animals, suddenly finding myself in a richly animated world of creatures that all have very different forms of consciousness and therefore ways of constructing reality. These other forms of consciousness, which feel more ‘animalistic’, body-centered and incomprehensible to the rational mind, enriched my work today as I was writing this blog. The human drama occurring in the dream felt like a Shakespearean play around animal forms of consciousness that wanted to be integrated into the hyper-rationality of my left-brain thought patterns. The dream felt both disturbing and hilariously bizarre like a farce, weaving different characters into a complex web of interactions and explorations that disturb the familiar order of things. Of course there is much more one could read into the dream, but I clearly needed to be disturbed, to be shown different types of awarenesses and greater freedom of creativity, in order to be more open to and inclusive of all that I myself don’t know, thus hopefully doing the topic of decision-making better justice.

Copyright © 2016 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

Categories: Blog.