Recently Freakonomics guru Steven Levitt announced a new research project of his on strategic decision making. He argues that when we really cannot make a definitive decision between two things then the only logical choice is to flip a coin. With that he launched a new website that is dedicated to Freakonomics Experiments. You send in your decision that you cannot make, flip a coin, let them know your outcome, and then they check in with you a couple of times in the future to find out how that decision turned out for you. I am really curious what they find out. I think this is fascinating, but perhaps not for the reason Levitt does. I believe it's fascinating because it disregards the role of emotion in that decision, which reflects a problem with the role of emotion for decision making in modern society.
I have thought about this problem a bit in the past. So often we end up facing a fairly consequential decision. Do I break up with someone? Do I take that job? Do I quit my current job? Do I buy that car? So on and so forth. The decision is not clear, no matter how many pro-con lists we make. The logical decision then is just to flip a coin, right? Deal with the consequences. Try not to think about what might have been.
However, I think this leaves out a really important part of decision making: emotion. Ultimately, I believe a more meaningful way of making a decision would be to just pretend you made a decision for a few days. Then, see how you feel about that. Frustration? Happiness? Then, do the same pretend sequence for the alternative decision. More than likely, your emotions will tell you the right choice for you.
This actually sort of comes from cognitive psychology, not sociology. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, studied people who had strokes that damaged their opitofrontal cortex of their brains. It turns out they become completely logical, losing their emotional capacity for decision making. One might assume they just become clear thinking robots, much like the Observers depicted in the television series Fringe. However, as they actually illustrate in Fringe, emotions are perhaps the most important component to rational decision making. The subjects Damasio studied lost the ability to make simple decisions or set goals. Their lives fell apart. Jonathan Haidt suggests that this is the only time when equally good or bad options should be made by any of us (i.e. when we do not have emotion involved and can only use instrumentally rational logic). He argues that all other decisions need emotion immensely, but not those that are equally good or bad. Levitt, however, argues that you cannot make a rational decision at this point and must leave it to a coin flip. I think that it is at these moments when emotional decision making is incredibly important, thus my suggestion above. Regardless, this idea of the difficult decision- and, in my opinion, the need for emotion in making that decision- brings up some troubling sociological challenges , and thus the really fascinating discussion item I allude to above.
We live at a time of tremendous separation from one another as a consequence of modernity in its various capitalist, institutionalist, and solidarity forms. We have more formal connections with one another. The suffering of other people, animals, and ecosystems is divorced from our immediate decision making most of the time. Very often we make decisions based off of formalized rules or to make money. [In fact, that is where I would argue this "solution" to problems by Levitt emerges: the coin flip is what we have institutionalized everywhere to make "fair" decisions, like who receives the first kick-off of the game. But at moments when there is consequence to your choice, the assumption that emotion should be separate seems to me to be more a reflection of a hyper-rationalized culture than necessarily the best way forward.] Yet in the face of a hyper-rationalized lived experience we all still yearn for emotional connection to people and to our decisions. The alienation and anomie produced within modern society push us to find emotional connections in ways that are not great. We retreat to extremist spheres of rationalization- organizations like the NRA change to become narrow promoters of ideology rather than a group of people working to create reasonable legislation through compromise, simply because of the emotive pay-off of such narrow promotion. Modernity redirects our yearning for a cathartic, communal emotional release and creates a tension within society that makes democracy ineffective (I humbly refer you to an earlier blog post of mine that discusses this issue) and hurts our ability to establish a sustainable and equitable system of living.
We need to continue to explore and establish mechanisms in our laws, organizations, and daily habits that push us more toward the emotional catharsis of cooperation, coordination, and compromise in ways that make our democracies work. [Perhaps I will attempt to tease out those mechanisms in future posts.] This is the only way we can productively integrate emotion into our decision making. This is the only way we do not tear one another apart or, worse, create a system that benefits the few to the detriment of the many. There has been solid scholarship indicating that this is what we are already doing, coming from people like Benjamin Barber and Joseph Stiglitz, among others. In the end, the Freakonomics coin flip tells us two things. First, we too often forget the importance of emotion to decision making in modern society. Second, because of the divisive socio-economic forces of modernity, directing emotions in the the pursuit of cooperation and compromise is an important priority, in my opinion, for creating the kinds of real utopias we desire as a society.