Difficult Decisions

Sometimes, you have to make a decision that implies choosing between two negative outcomes. This is called the lesser evil principle. How do you make the best decision in this context? Some ideas that may help.

  1. Part of what makes this kind of decision difficult is that it is hard to accept that we are going to loose either way. However, because the damage derived from each choice is not the same, it is important to have clarity about which negative consequences we are willing to bear, and which not.
  2. We need to identify emotional and psychological components that may be cluttering our judgement, or making us rationalize an emotional decision unconsiously taken beforehand. A symptom of this is only considering arguments that reinforce our position.
  3. Beware of what Adam Grant calls the first instinct fallacy1. We fall in love with our first solution to the problem, without regarding that there may be other better possibilities.
  4. We prefer the security of the known to the uncertainty of opening ourselves to unknown possibilities. But the known option may not provide the best outcome. Also, we may the social pressure that may come from changing our mind, specially if some specific opinion is expected in our social circle regarding certain topics. Sometimes, no matter what the arguments are, we don’t listen because we feel that our identity is being threatened if we change our mind.
  5. We need to consider first and second order effects. Second order effects are those derived from the first effects. We need to ask: in this scenario, what would happen next? And after that? What would happen in a year from now? In four years?
  6. We cannot disregard a negative effect only because its probability of happening is low. We need to evaluate the impact of that possibility actually happening. For example, when playing Russian Roulette the probabilities of winning are 83% and only 17% of losing… but with fatal consequences.

Complex situations don’t have a simple o clear solution. We rarely have perfect information. When we are forced to choose between two negative outcomes, it’s critical to consider the worst outcome possible, disrigarding the possibility of the outcome actually happening. In another context, that is why people buy insurances against rare but dangerous events such as earthquakes. In those cases, arguing that you don’t belive that there will be an earthquake this year doesn’t help. You need to evaluate the possible loss if there is an earthquake.

  1. Adam Grant, Think Again. Accordingo to the author, in 33 studies, in all cases the revised solution proved to be better than the initial solution.

Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

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