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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

Line

My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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Mandelbrot Set  Complexity
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Mandelbrot Set  Spirituality
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The Irrationality of Human Decision Making (June 2008)


Air New Zealand aircraftOn a recent overseas trip I was unfortunate enough to develop a blood clot in my leg. It happened that a week after it was discovered I was due to travel overseas again to attend a conference where I was to give a presentation.

I was naturally wondering whether or not it would be safe to undertake the flight, or whether the risk was too great and I should cancel the trip. So, at the hospital I told the doctor about the impending flight and he said he would go to discuss the issue with a specialist.

I had churned the issue over and over in my mind. I had decided that I did want to take the flight if it was safe because it would be of value. I expected to learn a great deal and relished the opportunity to present my ideas to a group of scientists. 

On the other hand, if there was a risk, the choice was clear. What would I rather miss, an overseas conference or a heart attack or stroke? In this case there was no choice.

As it happened, the doctor returned saying that the specialist had considered the matter and decided it was safe for me to travel to Australia.

We then discussed the medication regime that would go alongside the decision. An appointment was set with my doctor for three days later, when other details would be discussed.

So, I had prepared myself for the possibility that the journey might be cancelled, and would have indeed cancelled if the specialist had said it was unsafe, or even had the specialist had some concerns regarding the safety of the trip. Having prepared for the worst, the reply meant that I felt comfortable in undertaking the flight, while still knowing there must be some level of risk and that should the risk prove to eventuate, the outcome could be extremely serious indeed with serious disability, illness or even death as possible consequences. It may have been that the specialist did voice concerns, even very real concerns about the viability of the travel, but decided on balance that it was safe for me to travel. If so, I did not hear any of those doubts, I merely heard, “It’s okay to go” and continued with my travel plans.

Three days later, I duly attended the appointment with my GP, but to my surprise, she said, “Are you really sure that you need to go on this trip. Could you cancel it, because there is a level of risk attached to traveling?” She continued, “The specialist has given you permission to go, so I will not stop you, but you should reconsider how much you need to go.”

Suddenly a decision that had been made was open again. If found myself unwilling to reconsider my decision because I had made up my decision after weighing up the facts several days before and my mind was mentally prepared to undertake the journey. I found myself feeling confused and somewhat angry at the doctor for bringing indecision back into a matter that had been previously carefully considered. I decided to go and as it turned out, everything turned out fine, and I survived the journey to write this article. 

On reflection, however, I am interested in the thought processes that brought me to make the decision that I did and note that in actual fact, the decision at my GPs was an irrational decision that could have had disastrous consequences.

Had the specialist voiced the concerns that my GP had raised I would have decided to cancel the trip, but when the concerns were raised after I had made a decision, I was unwilling to reconsider my decision. It is true that a specialist would have been in a better position to make a decision than my GP because if his greater experience and the two may have been making their decision based on different information. For example, the medicinal regime was altered between the two decisions.

I did not make a balanced decision based on all the evidence and informed opinion I had before me. The compulsion to make a decision and stick to it was actually greater than the desire to make a fully informed rational decision even if my life might have depended on it.
So, where might have such a seemingly destructive and illogical compulsion come from that would lead us to make decisions that might potentially leave us in great peril?

One clue might be to look towards evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology looks at how our mental abilities might have evolved over time. A major criticism of evolutionary psychology is that in fact we have so little real, hard data about our earliest human ancestors, that we tend to test our theories and ideas based on what we assume life must have been like for them rather than what we know and that is a recipe for bad science. We ca get caught in the cycle of “because this is how we are now, that is what we must have been like. And if we were like that, it explains why we are like we are now”. This is clearly faulty thinking. Keeping this in mind however, it may be of value to make some speculations about our irrational decision making.

Even a microscopic bacterium has a level of decision making ability. Some can for example, test their environment to discover whether the level of glucose is that increasing or decreasing. If it is increasing, it moves in that direction. This is decision making in its most basic form. If x is detected, do y. Increasing the complexity of decision making was found to lead to the organism being more effective at coping in its environment, and thus increasing its chances of surviving and sending its progeny into the future.

By the time our early human ancestors arrived our cognitive capacities had evolved to be immensely more sophisticated. It is easy to underestimate how monumental such skills as being able to assess that an object it worth the inconvenience of carrying around with us because it will be a useful tool in a future circumstance. It is likely that there is no other creature alive with these skills. Chimpanzees and other creatures will use tools, but the generally only look around for what might be useful in their environment at the time it may be useful. To carry it for later requires some conception of the future.

A creature that makes a decision, but then keeps changing it is generally less likely to survive.  One which develops predictable patterns has better control over its behaviour and expends less energy in decision making, freeing energy for other functions. Other creatures can co-operate with another better if they are better able to predict how they will react in given circumstance. A creature that takes everything into account and then decides and follows through on that decision has the ability to put a full well thought out strategy into place. A creature that then changes its decision again and again at a whim, is less likely to be thinking in a logical effective manner. More often, following a less wise decision in a logical manner will be more effective than haphazard changing decision making.
Certainly it is easy to think of occasions when changing one’s mind was, or would have been the most effective outcome. Sometimes this would have been due to chance, while at others because new information to hand warranted a different conclusion or the original decision making had been faulty. 

We could conjecture that making a decision and sticking to it has proven itself to be a more effective tactic over time, such that those creatures who did so, were more likely to survive and those that did not were less likely to survive. Since such a strategy would have been formed very early in our history, it is likely to be deeply embedded and as such might have a less conscious influence over our behaviour that more complex, but less embedded later strategies. 

Keeping in mind that the logic used here is precisely that warned about as being unscientific, it is a possibility to be kept in mind to be reconsidered when more evidence might be forthcoming. It might help explain why I behaved so irrationally that I made a decision I knew at the time to be based on an irrational basis, but was not willing to reconsider.

What might have ideally happened was to have gone back to the specialist and asked about the basis for his decision to conclude that taking the trip was safe. This could have then been further discussed with the GP to have come up with the best decision. Of course, which ever way I had decided, it may still have been the wrong decision. I might have chosen to cancel the trip when it was in fact safe, or could have gone on the trip with dire consequences.

Evolution has brought us to being the most amazing, complex beings that we are, but some of the evolved traits we have inherited sometimes have a down side. The more we are aware of how our past has shaped us, the better equiped we are to make better decisions about how to live our lives.

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