How We Arrive at Our Poor Decisions

Too many times do we, as a society, become narrow-minded to the point of irrationality. Though operating with others in mind can be a challenge, some theories indicate that this is actually a good thing that leads to proactive and well-rounded decision-making. We are products of a me-centric culture; this is our default. Consequently, it is necessary to consciously shift the focus of our cognitive processes, calculating in those outside of ourselves.

This begs the question: How can we enforce the benefits of making decisions for others? And how well would that philosophy stick? For example, the child whose parents swat at his hand each time he tries to touch the inside of the electrical socket on the wall. His parents may dutifully train him through muscle memory to avoid placing his hand anywhere near the socket, but most likely a natural curiosity of the unknown will take over and he will touch the socket no matter what. Upon being shocked, the pain of the experience will be the ultimate teacher and he will never put his finger in the socket again. 

The unfortunate paradox
of which we find ourselves a part is that despite being emotional and empathetic
creatures, we are taught to perform short, cost-benefit analyses whenever and wherever we
make decisions. The tragedy of this psychology is that it leads to situations where we
fall into what Alfred Kahn calls “the tyranny of small decisions.” Kahn, an economist, developed the idea that, when considered together, a number
of seemingly small and rational decisions can cumulatively result in an
unfavorable outcome. 

One of my classes discussed this recently. At one point in our conversation, this concept was linked to environmental degradation and the way that
language influences the public’s support for initiatives. One must use
delicate yet persuasive word choice to curb habit, especially ubiquitous
detrimental practices that are negatively affecting the planet. Some research says public
opinion of a carbon tax is tied to whether it is presented as an “earmarked
tax” or an “offset.” The reaction to the tax was divided among political lines
(Republicans preferred the word “offset” over “tax.”)

It is interesting how
something arbitrary like word choice can actually play a significant role in the way
we process information and how we make decisions. In higher-level decision making situations, all small decisions leading up to it are made independently. How many of our decisions are
based on the normative models that we have been conditioned to value? Is our primary motive rational self-interest or are we influenced by our emotions? Is there an interaction between both forms of decision, and which
form ultimately wins out in the end? 

I am fascinated by the ways this plays out into our collective
consciousness and value system as a society, and even more interested in the
ways it plays out for us as students, taking care of our collective spaces and
opting into a culture of niceties and respect. 

In theory, I get no utility from my friend doing well. As
social animals we build and desire connections and communities. We must go
back to basics to reteach ourselves the credence of this.

This can translate into a reclamation of phrases like “social
responsibility” by the students themselves—approaching issues
of respect with a collective consciousness of humanity overarching over both
dialogue and actions. We have all learned the difference between “right” and
“wrong,” both through vicarious and
experiential learning, but there is disconnect in our execution.

Building vibrant, inclusive and diverse communities requires
respect and more importantly, everyone opting in. One person does make a difference—especially
when standing at the tipping point. We have a finite amount of time at the
institutions we find ourselves now, and we disservice ourselves and those around us by falling into the tyranny of small decisions. 

Do good, be good and act well, not because it will
benefit you, but because it is the most important thing you can do. Acknowledge
the humanity of others whenever you can and allow yourself to see the ripple
effects of a positive global consciousness.

Taylor Lemmons CM ’17 is an international relations and legal studies dual major from Denver, Colo.

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