Is There An Ideal Way To Make Decisions?

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I loved the smell of new comics when I was a kid. Few things excite me like getting the new Amazing Spiderman did. I remember the anticipation and the eventual satisfaction of holding it in my hand, staring at it without opening it at first. I’d study the cover, really taking it in before opening it and reading all about my hero.

That smell, though.

I often daydreamed about superpowers, as one does when they worship superheroes. Flying, invisibility, mind reading, etc., etc., but one wish that kept coming back was the ability to ask one question a day and get the 100% true answer.

I wasn’t greedy, I didn’t want to know everything. At the ripe old age of eight years old I knew that life was best if it was filled with mystery.  However, if I could know with certainty one new answer per day I could take over the world!

I suppose that I still wish that I could be certain about more topics. Does my wife really want me to be honest about what I think of her shoes?

Certainty creates confidence. Confidence that I made, or about to make, the right decision.

Is there an ideal way to make decisions?

No, obviously, but curiosity isn’t really about answers it is about exploration. I wanted to find out if there are things that I can do to make better decisions.

Enter Decision Theory.

So far, holy shitballs the people that write about and teach the topic, so far in my experience, are boring as fuck. Seriously. No wonder no one talks about this stuff. Which is surprising to me. I mean, all the self-help crap out there is proof to me that people want better lives, doesn’t it make sense that better decisions will help them do that?

Here is what I’ve found so far:

Decision Theory is com-freaking-plex. Overly so. It is a mathematical discipline that for the most part, has lived in the realm of the abstract, devoid of much real life application.

The simplest way to look at it can be found at Less Wrong. My version is a little less polished in language:

Each decision has a number of possible outcomes. Each outcome can be rated for its awesomeness. When I met my wife I decided to talk to her beyond the normal chit chat level. One outcome might have been having my ego kicked in the nads in the way of a rejection, I might rate that shit at -10. Another might have been that she wanted to get to know me. I might rate that bit of awesome at 100.

Each outcome has a certain probability. The chances of Georgie rejecting me when we met was low, she already agreed to a car pool and unless she was in a horrible mood I suspect that she assumed that we’d have some conversation. I put the odds of rejection as low. Let’s say they were at 1%. The chances that she’d connect and want to get to know me better, well, better than the surface level chit chat, was not too bad. We already knew we had a lot in common and we knew a lot about each other. I put the odds of that at around 60%.

There are other possible outcomes, but let’s stay there, for now, to aid in understanding. If those are the only two outcomes I can decide to talk to her or not by simply multiplying the probabilities against the desirability rating and adding them all up. 0.01 x -10 = -0.1. 0.6 x 100 = 60. 60 – 0.1 = Hellz yeah, Imma go for it.

That is the simplest version of it. What can happen? How awesome is it? How likely is it?

Now, let me help you out. If you want to dive into decision theory you will find that it is hella complicated. There are a lot of competing theories that can drive you mad if you let it. I have done so and I have concluded that it isn’t necessary, like at all, to do so, in order to make better decisions. Life is an intractable problem set, so the pragmatist gets to work with what she has. We’ll leave the prisoner’s dilemma to the theorists and simply live in the real world where you do not commit crimes with people, so that we don’t end up there to begin with.

To make better decisions, then, is really simply a matter of getting better at seeing possible outcomes and accurately assessing their awesomeness and likelihood. The good news is that this can be improved greatly, which we’ll explore in future posts.