Nine Terrible Ways to Make Choices (That You Probably Didn’t Know You Were Using)

This post blatantly steals ideas from an interesting and unusual little book: The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz.

There's a saying, often mis-attributed to Mark Twain, that goes "it is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled."

Likewise, it's easier to fool ourselves than it to accept that we've done so.

So if you want to fool yourself--without discovering or accepting it later--one of the most effective ways is to enable conditions where your choices are artificially limited. In other words, we often covertly or subconsciously "stack the deck" in certain specific ways with our choice-making. This causes us to shut off possibilities and solutions that would otherwise be right there for the taking.

Let's consider some examples:

Choice by Limitation -- Choosing only from what currently seems possible or realistic to you. "I didn't think I could really learn to do deadlifts, so I didn't try. I just stuck to the nautilus machines." Or: "I read somewhere this great quote: 'cheap, healthy, delicious: choose only two' it's obvious then that if you want to eat healthy and tasty food, it's is really gonna cost you." Note that reality doesn't care what you think, so why place arbitrary limits on it that you've totally made up?

Choice by Indirectness -- Choosing based on a process rather than by the result. Examples: choosing to go to law school/med school "to have a good career" rather than out of an actual desire for or interest in the subject matter itself. Or, in the domain of consumerism: buying a product or service to "make" you happy, rather than achieving happiness by directly satisfying the true underlying need (which ironically is usually free, or near-free).

Choice by Elimination -- Escalating a conflict such that you force an artificial or otherwise unnecessary choice. "I had to write him off, we argue way too much about politics."

Choice by Non-Choice -- Choosing not to make a choice, such that you give your power away to the situation. This is still a type of choice by the way, albeit a perverse one. Certain lifestyle anti-choices fit into this category, such as not choosing to make fitness, a healthy diet, or high-quality sleep a priority in your life.

Choice by Future Condition -- "When I reach my goal weight, I'm going to finally start on my dream of running a marathon." "When I get married, I'll finally get to..." etc. Sadly, these "choices" will likely never be made: they exist only in the future, never in the present.

Choice by Consensus -- Polling specific friends and framing the question to drive the answer you already want to hear. Examples: A woman asks her already-divorced girlfriends, "I'm no longer attracted to my husband, do you think should I divorce him?" Or: A frugal person asking her most hopelessly consumerist friend, "Should I buy this $300 dress? I really think it's cute." Um, what response did you think you'd get?

Choice by Reaction -- Whenever your situation or environment reaches a level of significant discomfort, making a reactive choice in order to lessen that discomfort. "You know, I never really started to deal with my weight until I started to have heart problems." You could easily argue that most human choices are made this way.

Choice by Adverse Possession -- Assuming if something happens to you, it's because, somehow, subconsciously, you actually wanted that thing. "I have hemorrhoids, therefore I must have somehow chosen them." You could also call this Choice by Law of Attraction.

Choice by Negation -- Instead of choosing to be healthy, choosing "not to be sick." Or, instead of making life choices with an intent to be wealthy, making choices so as "not to be poor." This may seem like merely a semantic distinction, but the negative option is typically a choice borne of fear and powerlessness, while the positive option is a choice based on true agency and power.

A Final Word
For me, the examples above collectively offer a lens I can use to evaluate the decisions and choices I make. Am I avoiding possibilities, am I needlessly limiting my options? Am I enabling circumstances to control me, giving away my power? Am I unknowingly letting someone else frame my choices... am I playing the game on someone else's terms?

Remember: the consumer marketplace, the food marketplace, the diet and fitness industry, the healthcare industry, the investment industry… all of these domains offer us all kinds of convenient-sounding default choices using systems, cues and various manipulation techniques to make us think we're really choosing for ourselves.

Often, the easy-seeming choices are the ones surreptitiously set for you by default. Don't give away your power and agency.

Readers, what do you think? 

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chacha1 said...

I have made a lot of non-choices and also some conscious choices in the "limitation" category. Pretty good about avoiding the others. :-)

I am self-aware enough to know that the limitations I've placed on myself were not cast in stone: I could have chosen otherwise. I've made a lot of compromises to facilitate things for other people. And I've chosen a line of work that I am really deeply tired of, but by staying in it so long I've seriously limited my ability to move sideways, let alone up.

It's a good thing to analyze why you (rhetorical "you") do the things you do. I try not to beat myself up about it, though. It's like the sunk-cost concept: once a decision is made and action taken, some doors may be closed forever. That "money" is gone. So the thing to do is be conscious about WHY the decision was made or the action taken, and to consistently be on the lookout for different doors.

In other words, don't fool yourself with some comforting narrative about choosing something because it was "best." Generally, we choose something because it's EASIEST. To avoid conflict, I would say, or the pain of change. We will often choose to stay with the pain we're familiar with rather than risk new pain (physical or emotional, or even financial).

It's interesting to ponder how different the public conversation might be if everyone actually thought about WHY they do - and choose - things, isn't it?

Climb the Rainbow said...

Oh God. I was cringing and wanting to run and hide under the nearest table by point 2.

I make a lot of choices from within the limitation category. I'm aware of it. Very aware of it. Painfully aware of it. But I still do it, because making a choice and succeeding with a superimposed artificial limitation is easier and much less scary than making a "blue sky" choice and risking potential failure.