The tougher the choices we have to make, the less sense we make making them. Understanding and educating ourselves can help us make better-informed decisions more consistent with our values.
Where would you like to go for dinner? Even the most indecisive among us can easily discern what sounds good based on restaurant options nearby and what appeals on those menus. You might weigh your choices and arrive at a decision fairly easily. Now, let’s try something a little more challenging: What actions should we take on climate change? That decision’s complexity can be paralyzing. New research from Erb Institute Faculty Director Joe Árvai provides insight on how we respond when faced with complex, unfamiliar and risky choices of this magnitude.
Trickiness, newness, and risk rattles us
People disagree—we can agree on that. We might disagree with each other on everything from personal tastes to political views, on the choices we make or should make, and we’re all entitled to our opinions. A study published in the Journal of Risk Research earlier this year suggests one arguably jarring fact: we disagree with ourselves.
Recently published research by Erb Institute Faculty Director Joe Árvai and his colleagues, Drs. Doug Bessette and Robyn Wilson, explores the idea that people actually disagree with their best interests, concerns, and values, and that decision making becomes increasingly inconsistent with what we really care about as we’re confronted with increasingly more complex, unfamiliar, and risky choices.
Arvai and his co-authors noted that alignment between an individual’s choices and their expressed values is more common when decisions are “easy,” as in, they’re familiar, they’re simplistic in nature, and the consequences pose little risk. Yet that alignment gets lost when people are faced with challenging choices that involve complex, high-risk contexts or unfamiliar territory.
Easy decisions vs. hard choices
This research examined how consistent individuals’ decisions were across a range of contexts, beginning with simpler, more familiar, and less risky choices (where to go for dinner), culminating with more complex, unfamiliar, and risky decisions (how best to deal with climate change). The findings suggest that the more complex a choice is—and the more risk it poses to society—the less consistent individuals are in aligning their decisions with what they say they want.
In the case of climate change, evaluating mitigation strategies “requires more cognitively demanding judgemental tasks” than deciding where to go for dinner—tasks with which “far fewer individuals have had direct or meaningful experience.” The sheer scope of climate change is objectively more overwhelming than deciding on a restaurant, and the lack of familiarity around how to proceed requires significantly more imagination. These challenging layers enhance uncertainty and can negatively impact decision making, resulting in inconsistency. “The disagreement between what people say they want and what they actually choose . . . presents a serious dilemma.”
Agreeing with yourself: knowledge is power
So how do you break away from making unproductive choices? How do you learn to agree with yourself in the face of life’s toughest decisions? Can we let go of our fears and insecurities around the complexities of making hard choices to actually arrive at informed decisions that match our values?
Individuals equipped with higher levels of education have a “significant and positive association with the consistency” of their choices as they reflect their values, concerns, and what they say they want. This is good news, affirming what many already believe to be true: knowledge is power. As citizens, organizations, and politicians consider how to deal with climate change and society’s other monumental challenges, we must remember this correlation when moving forward with pivotal actions and history-making decisions.
Honing in on your values
Fortunately, there are tools available to help you focus on your own values and stay informed as you’re weighing tough choices. Techniques exist for overcoming “well-known biases in decision making by helping individuals more thoughtfully consider their values, the consequences of different options to one’s values, and the implicit tradeoffs required by a choice.” If you first weigh the attributes of a possible decision before ranking the alternatives (for example, listing reasons why going to the Prickly Pear for dinner sounds good before naming other options), the internal consistency of your choices with your values increases.
Advanced education around a decision’s context—and higher education in general—allows individuals to safely explore the unfamiliar while gathering and synthesizing information that will help them produce more informed choices in the future. Education, imagination, and knowing what matters to you will be your best allies when it comes to making hard decisions.
You're your only hope
The results of this research suggest reason to hope—and cause for critical concern. The idea that education can support choices aligned with people’ true priorities is great (if we choose to educate ourselves in the first place). Yet it’s concerning that “society’s most consequential decisions may be, relatively speaking, the least reflective of what people actually care about.” It’s vital we dig deep to understand ourselves and take on the responsibility to educate ourselves about important issues that impact our values.