Why We Make Decisions
We make choices because we have to. Deciding is part of living. Our choices are important because they affect the types of experiences we have. Over time these experiences shape our values and sense of identity. Making choices is a rather costly activity. It requires balancing positive and negative effects, information gathering, and quite a bit of assuming. The stress of making a decision can lead us to avoid the decision-making process altogether. But we can’t truly get out of making choices for ourselves. We can, however, develop tools for reducing the cost of making choices. Second-order decisions are one such tool. These decisions help us establish a complete or partial answer to the questions before facing those questions in lived experience. They are jigs for how we engage with the environment, and we utilize them both consciously and unconsciously. Understanding some of the common forms of second-order decisions will help us identify when we are relying on these energy-saving processes and ultimately allow us to evaluate their significance on our character.
Unique Decisions and Second-Order Decisions
When someone asks you how your day is going you have to choose how to respond. We can stop and perform a quick evaluation of our physical, emotional, and social well-being at the moment, organize those evaluations, and summarize them into a statement that reflects the nuanced understanding that we just developed. Or we can say. “I’m doing well. How about you?”. Option A is a first-order decision. Option B is a second-order decision. More often than not, we will rely on option b because the investment required for option a is so much higher. The strictness with which we stick to option b is a good way of thinking about the various types of second-order decisions.
Rule: If you have a rule regarding your response to a casual greeting, you never have to think about what you will do in that situation. If you are having a great day or a terrible one, you can breeze through the start of the conversation with the tried and tested response of “I’m well.” The rule absolves you of any thought of choice, making it very efficient. Yet at the same time, because you are not thinking about the details of the circumstances, rules can also lead to numerous mistakes. In the example provided, it becomes evident to others that you are not evaluating their question; you are not giving them time.
Presumptions: Presumptions are rules with exceptions. They require a bit more effort than rules, as you need to understand if your circumstance warrants an exception or not. You may have your stock answer ready for everyone who visits you in the office, yet when your spouse calls and asks the same question, you give the decision of how to answer more effort. If you can correctly identify what exceptions are needed, presumptions offer a slightly less efficient but less mistake-prone application of rules.
Standards: Standards are rules or presumptions that contain an inherently subjective quality. When applying a standard, you understand the most likely reaction to a choice when you go into a new situation. However, you still actively evaluate the context of the environment to determine if a different response is needed. A coworker you always greet with your stock response in the office runs into you at the post office. You can respond as you always do, but the unique environment and happenstance of crossing paths makes using more effort to respond a reasonable choice. This flexibility can give you much more grace but will inherently cost more energy to implement. routines and habits
Choices and the Future
We lean into second-order decision-making because it costs us less to do so. Making a decision is taxing, and we have limited attention and effort to use on the process. So there is no way of getting around the presence of second-order decision making. In the context of greeting people you know, the value of understanding your second-order decisions seems a little much. Yet, all choices pull from the same limited pool of attention and energy. So it’s worth considering whether you develop rules, presumptions, and standards around these mundane events to leave your decision-making faculties more open to other choices. More importantly, these consistently observed and predetermined decisions form the basis of our habits and biases. They are the roots of the actions that build the foundation of our character. Understanding when and why they are occurring and how they align to a long-term vision gives us an active mechanism for helping shape who we are to become. Choosing when not to choose grows our identity.