On Deciding

Whoever has the choice has the torment.
Adam Gopnik writes about some advice given to him by a former professor, Albert Bregman, at McGill University who he much respected. In trying to decide whether to major in psychology or art history, Bregman “squinted and lowered his head.”

“Is this a hard choice for you?” he demanded. Yes! I cried. “Oh, he said, springing back up cheerfully. “In that case, it doesn’t matter. If it’s a hard decision, then there’s always lots to be said on both sides, so either choice is likely to be good in its way. Hard choices are always unimportant.”

The advice immediately raised a red flag for me. Is that a sound decision making strategy?

To begin, it really didn’t help Gopnik to decide, did it? He had to choose one at the expense of the other, even though he liked them both. Gopnik is still left in a quandary. Which of the two?

More importantly, Bregman’s strategy focuses on the positive outcomes of each discipline. Is that what really counts? Or do the potential disadvantages, the negative outcomes of each field, matter more?

In the end, that is going to be what really counts once you begin the pursuit of either one. Sure you might enjoy the study of art history. But what about all those hours in a dark lecture hall looking at those slides the professor is displaying on the screen? What about all those periods in history where the work of the artists leaves you cold? How long is this guy going to take to get to the Impressionists?

Let us say, you opt for psychology, you are impressed with what you’ve read about it and from what your friends tell you about its potential. So you start your study, hoping to get a better understanding of human behavior, including your own.

What you find is that the work of psychologists today is so varied that to meet the requirements you’ll end up taking a course in psychophysics, one in conditioning theory studying animals, sometimes rats at other times pigeons, and along the way you’ll be asked to take a course in neuro-anatomy.

What happen to behavior, who among those members of the department are studying what people do? Perhaps it is social psychology, the study of social interaction? What you’ll find today is that most social psychologists are currently studying social cognition or the neuroscience of interaction. Where happened to the behavior in social behavior?

In short, it isn’t the positive features of the field that are going to matter, say the smart group of students and professors, the absence of course exams, and the pleasure of small group discussions. What is going to matter are all the things that grate on you.

Perhaps a better decision strategy is to try to predict all the positive features of the field, as well as the negative ones. Try to rate them, say, from 1 to 10 with 10 the most positive or most negative. Add up the pluses and the minuses and see what the results are.

The field of study with the least negative total is probably the field for you. Of course, any estimates of this sort are inevitably going to be imperfect. But there’s no alternative but to accept that. Simply focusing on your estimate of the desirable features of any field is going to ignore those that aren’t. And in the end, those will weigh more heavily.

It’s the pains that outweigh the pleasures. You try to shake them off, but they don’t go away.