Here is a little article on political correctness that is sure to spark some lively conversation in interpersonal and intercultural communication classes.



Biases in Making Choices

This is a word copy of an article that was published in Etc: A Review of General Semantics 73, October 2016, pp. 314-320.  (The journal is a bit behind and this was actually published October 2018.) The purpose of the article was not to propose new theories but just to put some of these cognitive biases together and apply them to choice-making. And, as usual, the insights of General Semantics make a lot of confusing things a lot clearer.

Making choices is not an easy task. It regularly creates stress and regret. Everyone wants to make the right choices or at least what we imagine the right choice might be.
The process is complicated and made less effective than might be because of a variety of cognitive biases that impair logical thinking and analysis and lead to errors of judgment, misevaluations, and bad choices. The trick is to identify the biases and to confront them with more logical, more mindful, analysis.
Here we single out just five of the many biases (the ambiguity bias, the bandwagon bias, the anchoring bias, the confirmation bias, and the status quo bias), explaining how they operate, offering some examples, and proposing counter measures you can take to help reduce the influence of these biases.
The Ambiguity Bias
All choices involve some degree of ambiguity—there is always some unknown factor that can alter the effectiveness of the choice. The ambiguity bias leads you to select the choice that is least ambiguous, the choice that is most certain (Ellsberg, 1961, 2001; Chew, Ebstein, & Zhong, 2012).
For example, assume you’re buying a used car and you’re trying to decide between two very similar cars—one has 70,000 miles and the other has a broken mileage counter and so may have fewer or more miles than 70,000. All other things being equal, you’d be more likely to choose the one with known mileage even if it’s high.
Consider a student selecting a course taught by two professors; one has average ratings on Ratemyprofessor.com and the other is unrated.  It’s likely that the student would select the professor who has a rating, even though it’s just average.
Or consider selecting a restaurant from the reviews on Yelp. Of the nearby choices, one has a 3-star rating and the other is unrated. More than likely you’d chose the 3-star restaurant.
In all of these cases, you figure that the known average (or even below average) is better than the unknown which could be a lot worse. Of course, if the professor’s rating as horrible and the restaurant is given no stars, you’d likely go with the unknown. But, when things are at the acceptable level of tolerance, you’d likely choose the known.
It’s interesting to note in this connection that cultures differ widely in their tolerance of ambiguity (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010).  Persons from Singapore, Jamaica, Denmark, Sweden, Hong Kong, and other high ambiguity tolerant cultures are more tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity while persons from Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Uruguay, Belgium, and other low ambiguity tolerant cultures are less so and experience greater discomfort when situations are ambiguous. Students from low ambiguity tolerant cultures, for example, will want assignments that are clear and specific and will feel uncomfortable with ambiguous assignments; students from high ambiguity tolerant cultures will respond in opposite ways.
            The antidote to the ambiguity bias is—when possible—to reduce the ambiguity so that all choices can be examined more objectively. When that’s not possible—as in the case of the broken mileage counter—you’d need to make inferences based on other factors—the wear of the tires, the condition of the seats, the dings, and so on—that might help you better estimate mileage. And the student might reduce uncertainty by sitting in on a class or two with each instructor before making a decision.
The Bandwagon Bias
The term bandwagon seems to have been used, originally, in reference to the wagon that carried the band in the circus. Later, politicians would use a wagon with a band to promote their candidate and urged voters to jump on the bandwagon in support their candidate.
            As a cognitive bias, the bandwagon bias refers to the very common tendency to go with the crowd, to believe what others believe and to do what others do (Nelson, 2016). Going along with the crowd reduces the stress on choice making. Even if you make the wrong choice, you have lots of company and that’s comforting. As business leader Lei Jun put it: “Things get much easier if one jumps on the bandwagon of existing trends.” But that’s obviously not always the most effective choice.
            And, it’s not just the majority that influence us; it’s also the attractiveness of the other people. This attractiveness bias leads you to follow and to be influenced by those you consider attractive. That is, you’re more likely to believe and act in the way attractive people do than the way unattractive people do. It’s one of the reasons that clothing models are all above average in attractiveness. It’s also one of the reasons that political polls are so important and so influential; you want to vote for and support a winner, not a loser and so polls may influence voters more than report voter preferences. In groups, this tendency is referred to a groupthink, the tendency to agree with the majority and to not voice opposition (Janis, 1983; Richmond, McCroskey, & McCroskey, 2005).
            The antidote here is to recognize that the majority—however attractive--can be wrong. “Even when the experts all agree,” noted Bertrand Russell, “they may well be mistaken.” A good example of this is seen in the bystander bias where a group of people, even while witnessing a crime, may do nothing (Darley & LatanĂ©, 1968), a bias articulated after observing that a crowd of people did nothing while a woman was being murdered. More important, perhaps, is to recognize that other people are not you. They have different needs, wants, motivations, objectives, talents, and so on. What is right for them—however, many or however attractive—is not necessarily right for you.
The Anchoring Bias
The anchoring bias, as you can guess from its name, leads you to focus on just one bit of information about the choices and to ignore or give less importance to other factors. It anchors your thinking to one aspect; usually, it’s the first impression (McElhany, 2016; Dean, 2013).
Often it takes the form of anchoring decisions to what you’re used to or what you expect based on past experiences. For example, let’s say you’re a college student and have worked at a variety of fast food restaurants for $13 an hour. Now, you’re offered a job at $14 an hour and so you take it. You take it because you’ve anchored your pay at $13 and the increase of a dollar is seen as a reason to take the new job.
The anchoring bias leads you to evaluate your choices according to some baseline. For example, in buying a house, the anchoring figure is the asking price and it is around this asking price that negotiations will take place. The same is true for a car; the sticker price is the baseline; it’s the anchor.
            The antidote here is to examine the negatives of your focus and the positives of the other aspects of the choice. Recognizing that the anchor is in fact an anchor and is getting in the way of your impartial examination of other choices is likely to help reduce the effect of this bias. And, of course, you can always try to reset the anchor: I’m looking for a BMW 5 for X-amount; what can you do for me?
The Confirmation Bias
Umberto Eco once wrote that “followers of the occult believe in only what they already know, and in those things that confirm what they have already learned.” In reality most people, though not occult followers, seek confirmation for their beliefs; they operate with the confirmation bias, a bias that leads you (sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously) to seek confirmation of your selected choice (Cherry, 2017). Whatever choice you want to be right will lead you to seek reasons why that is the right choice and why the other possible choices are not as good. It leads you, in fact, to seek out confirming evidence and to ignore evidence that is disconfirming.
            And so, if you decide you want to marry Chris, you’ll look for reasons why Chris would be an appropriate life partner. If your preconception is that German cars are the best, you’ll focus on evidence that supports this preconception—advertisements for Audi and Mercedes or talks with those who are pleased with their German cars. At the same time, you’d avoid ads for Lexus and Hyundai and dismiss or minimize any positive reactions from those who like cars that are not German.
The problem with the confirmation bias is that it leads you to limit your information search to confirming evidence and to avoid evidence that would disconfirm your preconceived choice. And, of course, it is exactly this disconfirming evidence that can lead to a more careful, thorough, and unbiased analysis.
            The antidote here is to analyze your choice by actively seeking disconfirming evidence. If you decide to buy a BMW, look for evidence against this choice—you already likely have evidence as to why you should buy it; you need to balance that evidence with other evidence, especially contradictory evidence. One simple way to do this is to read positive reviews of other choices and negative reviews of your selected choice. Listing—literally making a list—the negative aspects of your choice and the positive aspects of other choices, can help balance the evaluation. Taken too far, however, and you’ll never make a choice at all.
The Status Quo Bias
The status quo bias leads you to make decisions that essentially retain what you already have (Samuelson & Zeckhauser, 1988; Henderson, 2016). The status quo bias leads you to choose the familiar over the unfamiliar. The well-known adage—Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know—captures the status quo bias and also supports the ambiguity bias where you prefer the known to the unknown.
In many cases, you make a decision to not make a decision or not to change and simply stick with what you have. The emotional advantage here is that not making a choice doesn’t seem like making a choice and so it enables you (1) to avoid the stress of making a choice and (2) to avoid the regret that follows many choices.
Not surprisingly, you’re more likely to want to remain with the status quo when there is an overabundance of choices. When there are too many possible choices, the entire process can appear too confusing and too complex. And here the status quo feels a lot more comfortable than going through the process of examining all these potential choices and, perhaps, making a mistake in the process.
Examples of the status quo bias are all around us—retaining your current insurance without looking for less expensive policies or retaining your cell phone service or simply renewing without examining alternative plans. The status quo bias also seems a likely reason why so many unhappy couples stay together. It’s easier to remain with the status quo and endure the unhappiness.
The status quo bias is closely related to another natural tendency and that is the risk avoidance bias; you want to avoid risk. Because you’re probably like most people and risk aversive, staying with the status quo enables you to avoid losing something—a partner, money, a job, for example. Even though a change may well bring additional benefits, it may also lead you to incur a loss and losing (say, money) is more distressing and unpleasant than gaining money is enjoyable Ellsberg, 1961, 2001). The potential benefits of a decision to change are seen as less important, less consequential than the potential downsides or negative effects of a decision to change that may turn out to be a poor one.
Another closely related bias is the omission bias. The negative impact of a wrong choice is less if it was a choice to do nothing and more if it was a choice to do something, that is, to change the status quo (Schwartz, 2016). So, for example, the fear of a child becoming ill leads many parents to not have their children vaccinated for any of a variety of viruses. If the child does get sick, the negative impact would be greater if some action was taken than if no action was taken. One of the problems with this way of thinking is that the weight of the evidence is clearly on the side of doing something (that is, getting vaccinated) and against doing nothing (that is, not getting vaccinated). Yet, the omission bias persists (Ritov & Baron, 1990).
Recognizing that you may be influenced by this bias—bringing it to a mindful state—will help reduce its effects. Perhaps it will also help to recall Ronald Reagan’s observation that “status quo, you know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in’.” Or, equally appropriate, is leadership theorist Warren Bennis’ claim that “the manager accepts the status quo, the leader challenges it.” Visualizing what things would be like if changes were made may also prove of value.

All of these cognitive biases are based on faulty assumptions. So:
·         To combat the ambiguity bias: Don’t assume you know or can know everything. Everything is to some degree ambiguous and the goal should be to reduce uncertainty as much as possible.
·         To combat the bandwagon bias (and its related attractiveness bias and bystander bias): Don’t assume that the majority is always right.
·         To combat the anchoring bias: Don’t assume that what comes first is necessarily the most important.
·         To combat the confirmation bias: Don’t assume that your beliefs aren’t getting in the way of logical analysis.
·         To combat the status quo bias (and its related risk avoidance bias and omission bias): Don’t assume that doing nothing is necessarily the best choice or that taking risks is necessarily a bad choice.
Cherry, K. (2017). What is a confirmation bias? Retrieved February 3, 2018 from https://www.verywell.com/what-is-a-confirmation-bias-2795024

Chew, S. H., Epstein, R. P., & Zhong, S. (2012). Ambiguity aversion and familiarity bias: Evidence from behavioral and gene association studies. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 44, 1-18.

Dean, J. (2013). Anchoring effect: How the mind is biased by first impressions. Psyblog. Retrieved February 3, 2018 from http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/05/the-anchoring-effect-how-the-mind-is-biased-by-first-impressions.php.

Ellsberg, D.  (1961). Risk, ambiguity, and the savage axioms. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 75 (4): 643–669doi:10.2307/1884324

Ellsberg, D. (2001). Risk, ambiguity, and decision. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2001. 

Henderson, R. (2016). How powerful is status quo bias? Psychology Today. Retrieved February 3, 2018 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/after-service/201609/how-powerful-is-status-quo-bias

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (3rd ed.). NY: McGraw-Hill.

Janis, I. (1983). Victims of group thinking: A psychological study of foreign policy decisions and fiascoes (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

McElhany, R. (2016). The effects of anchoring bias on human behavior. Retrieved February 3, 2018 from https://www.sagu.edu/thoughthub/the-affects-of-anchoring-bias-on-human-behavior.

Nelson, K. (2016), Bandwagon effect—cognitive biases (Pt. 8). Retrieved February 3, 2018 from https://evolveconsciousness.org/bandwagon-effect-cognitive-biases-pt-8/.

Richmond, V. P., McCroskey, J. C., & McCroskey, L. L. (2005). Organizational communication for survival: Making work, work. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Ritov, I., & Baron, J. (1990). Reluctance to vaccinate: Omission bias and ambiguityJournal of Behavioral Decision Making. 3 (4): 263–277. doi:10.1002/bdm.3960030404

Schwartz, B. (2016). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins.

Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1, 7-59.

*Joseph A. DeVito is Professor Emeritus, Hunter College of the City University of New York.


The Live Audience in Online Public Speaking Courses: One More Try

After reading the varied posts, I’m convinced we (as an academic discipline) don’t have any evidence for the claims that a live audience is either effective or necessary in online public speaking courses. 

Although instructors noted how they handled this issue of a live audience, no one produced any evidence. In fact, I don’t know of any research showing that assembling 6 or more people and presenting a speech to them will improve someone’s public speaking skills more than will delivering it to a camera. If there is evidence, beyond the anecdotal, I’d much appreciate learning about it.

Some people report that there is inherent value in presenting a speech to a live audience. This may well be true (though I’m not sure) but perhaps an online public speaking course is not the place for it. We cannot provide students with experience in every type of public speaking situation. After all, the live audience that the speaker recruits is unlike any audience he or she will ever meet again. So, we are not really providing experience in facing a live (and realistic) audience.

Perhaps the online public speaking course should be focused on online public speaking—webinars, podcasts, videos on YouTube. Public speaking does not depend—for its definition or its existence—on a live audience. That’s just the way it has been for centuries; technology has changed that.

At least one person expressed the need to keep the online and the live classes as similar as possible. To this I would ask: Why? Why not two courses, each of which addresses a somewhat unique (but largely overlapping) set of learning outcomes.

In terms of education and training, perhaps we should focus on what each context does best—the online public speaking course for online speaking, the traditional classroom for live speaking. Even here, however, there is room for choice—the online class student could also give a speech to a live audience and the traditional class student could also give an online presentation. The key here, I think, is student choice, not requirement. Most students I’ve met, know what learning experiences will be helpful to them in life.

There seem conflicting views on the difficulties involved in requiring a live audience. Some seem to shrug it off as if it’s of no consequence while others acknowledge the dislike that students have for the requirement. My own feeling is that the difficulties are a great deal more than most instructors realize. I suggest asking your online students some simple questions like: How much time is involved in recruiting, assembling, and disassembling an audience? Are obligations to audience members incurred as a result of this requirement? Is this a good use of your time? Was it worth it?

I think the answers will be eye-openers and I think you’ll also find that requiring such a live audience—made up as it is of friends and family--adds to the already negative view that students have of public speaking (as well as to their level of communication apprehension). Why compound this with requirements that have not been shown to be effective or necessary? Why complexify a student’s life without evidence that the requirements are essential to the learning of public speaking? Why make public speaking a dreaded chore with needless hurdles rather than a course that students enjoy as well as profit from?

It seems reasonable to assume that most students allot their time among their varied courses, giving some courses more time and others less.  Similarly, each assignment is likely to be allotted a certain block of time—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. If this assumption is even partially true, then the time spent on recruiting a live audience (and the subsequent obligations)—all of which have nothing to do with public speaking--is time taken away from the research, construction, and rehearsal of the actual speech. I’m not sure this is time well spent.

In short, a live audience for online public speaking courses has not been shown to be effective or necessary to the learning of public speaking skills; it adds unnecessary hurdles, increases apprehension, and likely intensifies the negative view that many have of public speaking; and it takes time away from those activities that are directly related to public speaking.

And, it needs to be added, there are other more efficient and probably more effective ways of teaching the student to face an audience, whether live or online. For example, having the student construct a speech with a specific audience in mind (perhaps for listeners who are opposed to the thesis or favorable or lacking in knowledge or uninterested in the topic or college athletes or gun control advocates or police recruits or engineers—the list is limitless)—as I suggested in my previous post—would, it seems, help the student learn how to address different (but realistic) audiences in a more efficient and more enjoyable way.


The Audience in Online Speaking

The following post was sent to the basic course list (Basiccc@lists.udayton.edu) in response to a number of instructors explaining how they incorporated the live audience in an online public speaking course. But, I thought others might be interested in the issue. It's an important one and one that is sure to increase as online courses become more numerous.

I’ve read with much interest how various basic course instructors deal with online public speaking assignments. Many (perhaps most), it seems, require the student to deliver the speech in front of a live audience which must be video scanned. This requirement is surely well-intentioned, designed to enable the student to experience presenting to a live audience in as realistic a setting as possible. However, I think there’s a downside to this practice and I’d like to argue that it isn’t necessary and in many ways is counterproductive.
Public Speaking is a difficult course for many students, often because of their communication apprehension. Requiring them to round up 6 or 8 or more people to sit in the audience only adds to this anxiety and makes the course—for some, at least—an even rougher experience than it would be without this requirement. Public Speaking should be a course that students want to take, not something they dread taking.
If the aim of this requirement is to give the student practice in analyzing and adapting to an audience, it falls short. The audience is a fake one, made up of available friends and family; it’s not an audience that the student is likely to face in real life. Nor will these friends and family act and react as would a real audience.
There are other ways of giving the student practice in audience analysis and adaptation. For example, the student might select an “audience” to address: the audience of Fox News, at-risk high school students, followers of Yoko Ono on Twitter, the basketball team, NRA supporters, the PTA—or in fact any audience that the student would find useful in his or her anticipated profession. The student would then indicate—on the submitted speech text, outline, or audience analysis form —the analysis and the adaptations made in the speech for this specific audience. Should the course also include during-the-speech adaptation (a really advanced skill and one I have never seen demonstrated at any NCA convention presentation, for example), specific scenarios can easily be developed—several members of the audience are focused on their cell phones, some members look puzzled, a few members are shaking their heads in disagreement. Here again the student would indicate the chosen strategy for dealing with the cell phone users, the confused, or those signaling disagreement.
There are no doubt many other ways to ensure that the student learns the appropriate skills of speaking to an audience. And similar experiences can easily be developed to teach any of the other skills that might be taught and learned from dealing with a live, even if fake, audience. Requiring a live audience is not the only way.
Requiring the student to assemble and video a live audience not only adds to the student’s burden, it burdens the 6, 8, or more people that must assemble at a specific time, listen to a speech they may not be interested in, and then return to their respective spaces and continue with what they were doing. If you multiply the number of speakers by the number of audience members required by the number of speeches by the length of the speech, the resulting figure can be quite high even for a class of 20 or 30. Factoring in the time to select, request, assemble and return makes it too high (at least as I see it). This time and energy can surely be better spent by both speakers and audience members. And, it needs to be added, much of this—asking friends and family to drop what they’re doing to listen to a speech—has nothing to do with the principles and skills of public speaking.
Consider too the obligation that the speaker now has to these people; they did him or her a favor and favors require reciprocity. The speaker, by the very nature of the assignment, is required to violate the negative face needs of each of the audience members. That hardly seems fair or justifiable on the basis of teaching the skills of public speaking that can easily be taught in other ways.
The practice of requiring a video scanned live audience, as I see it, is not the only way to teach audience analysis and adaptation (or any other public speaking skill), adds to the anxiety of already anxious students, forces students to impose on others and incur obligations as a result, and wastes an enormous amount of time and energy that has nothing to do with public speaking.
None of this is not to say that the customary practice of having a video scanned live audience should be prohibited; it may be an option—one that I see as having considerable downside but one which some students might like and profit from. But, it should not be a requirement.


Etiquette and communication

Here's a wonderful brief post on etiquette and communication. A neat summary of some essential rules..



Making Choices

Here is a Word file of an article published in Etc: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 73, no 2, April 2016, pp. 173-179. The journal is a bit behind its normal publication schedule so this was just published.
Making Choices*
Living is a process of making choices. Much as you cannot not communicate, you cannot not make choices. Making choices is inevitable--even, as William James noted “When you have to make a choice and don’t make it that is in itself a choice.”
You make choices constantly—you chose what to wear, where to shop, what to eat, whom to call, what to read, what websites to access. Some choices are easy to make and some are difficult. Selecting a shirt or the way you want your eggs is an easy decision, largely because your ultimate choice doesn’t make much difference. But, some choices are extremely significant—where to go to college, what person to marry, what type of medical treatment to undergo, or what profession to enter. And, of course, these are the choices that are often the most difficult to make and that create the most stress.
The financial decisions you make, even in the earliest stages of your earning life, will impact the house you live in, the schools your children go to, the car you drive, the restaurants you can afford, and lots more. Your interpersonal decisions—whom to date, whom to marry, whom to friend or de-friend--will impact your personal and social lives in every conceivable way. In the workplace, your decisions—depending on your degree of influence and job description—whom to hire, whom to promote, whom to fire--will impact a major part of your life and those who are a part of the workplace.
Even intrapersonal success (i.e., self-satisfaction, happiness, contentment) is influenced by the choices you make and by the way you approach and the way you react to the choices you’ve made. Your choices, in effect, define who you are--as Dumbledore said to Harry in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

In making choices—say, what car to buy, how to break up romantic relationship, how to deal with a disturbing neighbor, how to manage an underperforming employee--there are at least four basic steps.
1. Identify your aim. What do you want to accomplish? The more specifically you can identify your aim, the better your chances for accomplishing it. High abstractions are difficult to use as choice-making guides.
2. Identify your available options or choices. What are the things you can do? A reasonable number of choices need to be identified. Too many choices can lead to choice paralysis; here the field of potential choices is so great that the process of selecting any one seems overwhelming and so you do nothing (Iyengar, 2011).
3. Identify the relative merits of each choice. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each option?
4. Act. Select. Choose. Decide. Implement the choice with the most advantages and the least disadvantages.
You may want to add a fifth step that focuses on securing feedback on your decision—Did the choice work? Did it help you achieve your aim? Did it create additional problems? Answers to such questions might then prove helpful in future choice-making situations or even in attempting to redo or undo the choices you’ve already made.
Making effective decisions is only one part of the choice making process. The other part is living with constant choice making and with your specific decisions, processes that are often stressful and often engender regret.
Political scientist and economic theorist Herbert A. Simon (1956) drew a useful distinction between different types of choice makers which help explain some of the reasons for stress. Some people are maximizers; these choice-makers go to unusual lengths to examine their possible choices and their respective merits, determined to make the very best decision possible. Maximizers are rarely satisfied with their choices, thinking that somehow, someway a better decision could have been made. Other people are satisficers (a combination of satisfy and suffice). These people examine their options—but not obsessively—and make the best choice possible. They rarely look back; they don’t worry unduly about the possible advantages that other choices might have provided or the possible disadvantages that the present decision might entail. In short, they settle for a reasonable choice. The satisficer’s creed is neatly summed up in the title of Lori Gottlieb’s (2011) book, Marry him: The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough. Of course, most people are in between these extremes; some closer to the maximizer end point and some closer to the satisficer end point; you maximize and satisfice to some degree. And, of course, you likely maximize or satisfice more when making some choices and maximize or satisfice less when making others. As you can appreciate maximizers experience a great deal more stress than satisficers both in making the choice and in living with it.
In addition, choice making produces stress when you know your choice is to be evaluated, when the decision is crucial to life, when there is great uncertainty about the outcomes, when the decision has to be made quickly. One of the problems which stress causes—in addition to the obvious emotional upheaval—is that under stress you are more likely to focus on the positive outcomes of your possible choice rather than the possible negative outcomes, thereby distorting clear evaluation and analysis (Mather & Lighthall, 2012). The real estate salesperson who urges you to make a quick decision because others are interested, is likely banking on your stress leading you to emphasize the positives in the new home and to ignore the negatives.
Along with stress, choice making often produces regret. One reason for this is that in making a decision to select one from among, say, A, B, or C, you are accepting the negative features of your selected choice (one reason for regret) and rejecting the positive features of the choices you rejected (a second reason for regret). It’s a kind of buyer’s (or seller’s) remorse—you wonder if you paid too much or sold too low.
This regret is compounded by the very human tendency to engage in counterfactual thinking—thinking about a past that didn’t exist (Mandel, Hilton, & Catellani, 2005). It often comes in the form of “If only I had chosen X instead of Y.” Upward counterfactual thinking—the more common form--focuses on how things might have been better had you chosen A rather than B—If only I had invested in Amazon years ago; if only I’d practiced safe sex; if only I had gone to work for ABC. The more you focus on what might have been, the more inadequate your choices seem and the more regret you feel. Downward counterfactual thinking—engaged in less frequently-- focuses on how things could have been worse—If I hadn’t invested as I did, we’d be broke instead of rich. This thinking is comforting.
Not surprisingly, General Semantics has much to offer in the way of helping you to make better choices and to reduce the stress and regret that often accompanies decision making. And, again, not surprisingly, these come from the simplest of GS principles. Given this basic model of choice making and its accompanying stress and regret, here follow a few suggestions for making choices the General Semantics way.
Avoid Signal Reactions
In General Semantics an important distinction is made between delayed and undelayed (immediate) reactions. Surely, there are times when you have to make a decision immediately and instinctively. You don’t want to delay your choices while you debate the kind of snake hissing at you. Best you get out of the way as fast as possible.  But, in the vast majority of cases, there is at least some time for delayed reactions that enable you to think the situation through and to identify some possible choices and their relative merits.
A cost-benefits analysis where you identify each possible choice and its advantages and disadvantages will likely prove helpful. In some cases, a weighted cost-benefits analysis might be needed where each advantage and each disadvantage is given a weight relative to all other items. After all, not all advantages are equally advantageous.
Another useful technique is the 10/10/10 strategy (Welch & Welch, 2010). With this strategy you visualize what your choice would look like in 10 minutes, in 10 months, and in 10 years. This strategy forces you to consider both short-term and long-term effects of your choice and to see your choice from different time perspectives.
It’s also a useful technique in dealing with communication apprehension as in public speaking.  Looking at the feared public speaking situation—even considering that you gave the worst speech ever given—from a 10-year perspective makes the immediate apprehension seem not so important.
          During any analysis—but especially after lengthy evaluation—decision fatigue may set in. You get so fed up with all the choices and the advantages and disadvantages of each that you just want to buy the next car you see, send an “It’s over” email, report your neighbor to the police, and simply fire the underperforming associate, and not think any more about it. Not worrying about the available choices and their respective merits becomes the important aim; making the right decision is secondary. At this point, it’s best to stop the process, watch some television, and get back to decision-making when the fatigue is gone or at least under control.
Avoid Indiscrimination
One of the time-honored principles of General Semantics is that of non-identity—no two things are identical—similar, perhaps; identical, never. And so a useful principle in choice making is to recognize that no choice situations are the same; each choice situation is unique.
This simple principle of non-identity—when not recognized—seems the cause of much misevaluation. When you assume that the current situation is the same as a previous situation, you fail to take into consideration the uniquenesses impacting on the decision you now have before you. Keeping the index in mind helps: choice1 is not choice2 is not choice3.
Choices are also unique because things change; everything and everyone changes. A mindset of static evaluation—rather than that of constant change--can only get in the way of effective analysis of a situation. The date is a helpful device to recall: choice made two years ago is not choice made today; choice2016 is not choice2018; choicein the heat of an argument is not choicein a supportive exchange of ideas. We have changed, the other person has changed, the relationship has changed, the situation has changed; everything has changed.
Avoid Polarization
Most choice making situations—especially important ones—involve more possibilities than two—so the suggestion here is simply to recognize and combat the tendency to engage in either-or or polarized thinking. If you hear yourself identifying your choices with only one “or”—as in Should I do this OR that—stop and ask what other possibilities are available.
          One useful technique to gain other perspectives other than the two-valued kind (and help you to identify additional potential choices) is to create a ghost-thinking team—much like politicians have ghost writers—to give you different perspectives (DeVito, 1996). On the basis of your impending choice and your own personality, philosophy, and way of thinking, you can select any two, three, four, five, or more real—historical if you want—or fictional characters and ask what would they do? Sherlock Holmes, a revered religious leader, Wonder Woman, a scientist, a psychologist, a General Semanticist. All are potentially useful ghosts who might provide unique perspectives on the choices that can best help you achieve your aim.
          A related technique is the best friend strategy (Beisswanger, Stone, Hupp, & Allgaier (2010), where you ask yourself how you would advise a friend in a similar situation. This strategy is a popular one in choice making and can help depersonalize the choice just enough to give you another point of view (Schwartz, 2004; Heath & Heath, 2013).
Avoid Allness
This principle of non-allness is crucial in making choices but also in living with them. You can never know all about anything; your information is always incomplete. Whatever you do know is limited. You also have limited time, limited resources, and limited stamina to make your inventory of choices and their respective merits. So, because you can never have all the relevant information, you have to select a choice that best represents what you do know at the present time. There needs to be an implicit or explicit etc. at the end of any analysis.
The “vanishing options” test is often helpful in this connection (Heath & Heath, 2013). In this strategy you identify your choices—even your best choice—and then visualize what you would do if that choice was somehow not available any longer. You’ve finally settled on a Toyota Camry and are ready to buy. With the vanishing options test, you would now need to consider what you would do if there were no longer any Toyota Camrys to buy. The technique forces you to go outside your previously made decisions and reconsider your options.
This principle of non-allness is also helpful in lessening any guilt or discomfort that comes from recognizing better choices after the fact.  No matter how complete and diligent your identification and analysis of possible choices—ultimately to help you predict the outcomes of each choice—your prediction is an inference. The outcomes or effects of your choices are inferences which have varying degrees of accuracy. You can never make factual statements about the future; future statements are always inferential. It is only about the past and the present that you can make factual statements (Weinberg, 1959). And so, in a way, it’s comforting to know that when decisions don’t work out that you weren’t in a position to know or predict this at the time. You cannot logically and sanely blame yourself for not predicting the future.
Of course, these few suggestions are not going to ensure effective choices or reduce the stress or regret that often accompanies choice making. But, they can, it seems, eliminate some barriers to making and living with your choices and provide at least some guidance.

DeVito, J. A. (1996). Brainstorms: How to think more creatively about communication (or about anything else). New York: Longman.
Gottlieb, L. (2011). Marry him: The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough. Berkley, CA: Berkley.
Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2013). Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work. New York: Random House/Crown.
Iyengar, S. (2011). The art of choosing. New York: Hatchette/Twelve.
Mandel, D. R., Hilton, D. J., & Catellani, P. (Eds.). (2005). The psychology of counterfactual thinking. New York: Routledge.
Mather, M., & Lighthall, N. R. (2012) Risk and reward are processed differently in decisions made under stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21 (1): 36-41. DOI: 10.1177/0963721411429452
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Harper Perennial.
Simon, H. A. (1956). Rational choice and the structure of the environment. Psychological Review 63 (2), pp. 129-138.
Weinberg, H. L. (1959). Levels of knowing and existence: Studies in General Semantics. New York: Harper & Row.
Welch, S., & Welch, J. (2010). 10-10-10: A fast and powerful way to get unstuck in love, at work, and with your family, New York: Scribner’s.
Beisswanger, A. H., Stone, E. R., Hupp, J. M., & Allgaier, L. (2010). Risk taking in relationships: Differences in deciding for oneself versus for a friend. Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 121-135.

*Joseph A. DeVito is Professor Emeritus, Hunter College of the City University of New York.