Decisions, Decisions: How Better to Make Them


Decisions. Life is full of them.

Leaving our ministry overseas and coming back to the States has been one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make, but it was even more difficult because it didn’t stand alone. So many issues were intertwined with it: our home, our community, our children’s education, our careers, our ministry, our identities, our income, our friends.

Sorting by Numbers

While we were weighing our options, our field coordinator introduced me to a very helpful tool: the Prioritizing Grid, presented by job-hunting expert Richard Bolles in What Color Is Your Parachute? The grid offers a systematic way to rank multiple options or to determine which factors in your life are the most important to you.

The Prioritizing Grid works by numbering each item in your list and comparing them all in pairs. When you’re done, you tally the total votes for each one and you’re able to put your list in order. Over the years, I’ve tried to recreate the grid on paper, but I’ve found it hard to remember how to set it up. I was glad to find that career coach Beverly Ryle has provided an online version of Bolles’ grid at her website. It’s customizable from 5 to 40 items. Forty items?! Yes, sometimes our lives can be pretty complicated, and sometimes the list of alternatives can become overwhelming. Ryle writes that using the grid “helps people in transition to focus their energy and keep from spinning in circles.” Sounds like good goals to me.

Creating Your Own Reasons

While the Prioritizing Grid presents a quantifiable approach to decision making, Ruth Chang, professor at Rutgers University, looks at the same topic from a more philosophical slant. For Chang, even her ideas surrounding decisions, especially hard decisions, stem from her own choices. In a TED Talk, embedded below, she says,

I couldn’t decide between two careers, philosophy and law. I really loved philosophy. There are amazing things you can learn as a philosopher, and all from the comfort of an armchair. But I came from a modest immigrant family where my idea of luxury was having a pork tongue and jelly sandwich in my school lunchbox, so the thought of spending my whole life sitting around in armchairs just thinking, well, that struck me as the height of extravagance and frivolity.

So she made the “safe” choice to become a lawyer. But when she realized that wasn’t a great fit for her, she turned back to “extravagance and frivolity” and began a life of philosophizing. Now she’s a well-known expert on making tough decisions.

She explains that choosing is more than a mathematical comparison, and it’s more than simply finding the best of multiple options. Rather than discovering reasons for what is best, she says, difficult choices give us the opportunity to create reasons, and in so doing, recreate ourselves:

When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am. I am for banking. I am for chocolate donuts. This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.

Deciding to Decide

And finally, there’s this from the fictional Reverend John Ames, as written by Marilyne Robinson in Gilead:

I stay home Mondays when I can—my day of rest—so I had the morning to think and pray and also to do a little resolving, and while I was doing that, it came to my mind that I should consider what I would say to myself if I came to myself for counsel. In fact, I do that all the time, as any rational person does, but there is a tendency, in my thinking, for the opposed sides of a question to cancel each other more or less algebraically—this is true, but on the other hand, so is that, so I discover a kind of equivalency of considerations that is interesting in itself but resolves nothing. If I put my thinking down on paper perhaps I can think more rigorously. Where a resolution is necessary it must also be possible. Not deciding is really one of the two choices that are available to me, so decision must be allowed its moment, too. That is, as behavior, not deciding to act would be identical with deciding not to act. If I were to put deciding not to act at one end of a continuum of possibility and deciding to act at the other end, the whole intervening space would be given over to not deciding, which would mean not acting. I believe this makes sense.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Picador, 2004

[photo: “Choices,” by Derek Bruff, used under a Creative Commons license]


On Second Thought: Your Second-Language Decisions May Be Better

If you learn a second language, there’s evidence that thinking in that language leads to better decisions. Citing research from the University of Chicago, Tom Jacobs reports in Pacific Standard that “using one’s second language reduces or eliminates certain biases that otherwise infiltrate our decision-making.”

In the abstract to their article in Psychological Science, the researchers state that one would assume

that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native tongue, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language.

It seems that decisions made in a second, and therefore less familiar, language are more rational, depending less on emotional responses. One of the researchers’ experiments dealt with a game in which participants were presented with a choice to either keep a dollar or to bet it on a coin toss, given certain factors. The statistically wise move would be to take the bet, but those using their first language were less likely to bet the money. On the other hand, those who heard the presentation in their second language were more likely to make the bet. In other words, the first group listened to their ingrained, less-rational fears, while the second group thought through the situation more clearly.

So how would this affect everyday life? “People who routinely make decisions in a foreign language rather than their native tongue might be less biased in their savings, investment, and retirement decisions,” say the researchers. Hmmm. No word on how this would affect our decisions while visiting a foreign casino.

Addendum: While I was looking at the page in Psychological Science, I saw a link to the abstract of “Losing Access to the Native Language while Immersed in a Second Language: Evidence for the Role of Inhibition in Second-Language Learning” (Jared A. Linck, Judith F. Kroll, and Gretchen Sunderman). From what I can tell, the gist of the study verifies that immersion learning is more effective than classroom learning, and that this is in part because immersion learning serves to inhibit the use of one’s native language. That’s somewhat interesting, but that’s not what caught my attention. The opening sentence is what grabbed me: “Adults are notoriously poor second-language learners.” Now that doesn’t pull any punches. I wish I could have had that printed on a t-shirt to wear when I started learning Mandarin at the age of 37.

(Tom Jacobs, “Second Language Translates into Clearer Thinking,” Pacific Standard, April 24, 2012; Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa, and Sun Gyu An, abstract of “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases,” Psychological Science, July 21, 2011)

[photo: “think hard,” by Mutiara Karina, used under a Creative Commons license]