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.

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