choices and

consequences model

Decision making can be difficult at times, but the truth is we make loads of decisions everyday that we are probably unaware of. 

For instance, I decided I would get out of bed today even though I really did not want to; what I wanted to do was wallow in the restful coolness of my sheets and enjoy the sunbeam playing across the walls and ceiling. Then why did I get up? 

Needs! There was an issue related to laying in bed too long, the issue was "what is actually COMFORT to me?" I easily assessed the issue and choices, evaluated the consequences of choosing this versus that, and ultimately chose something in the middle--I laid in bed for 5 more minutes and then got myself up for the day because that gave me maximal comfort. 

When deciding to get up,  I did it all very quickly, without much ado. I chose "get up" because I like those very predictable  consequences best (have the coffee, do the day, stay on top of my shit) versus the also predictable consquences of the other choices (maybe coffee if I can get it brought to me, but no day of getting things done, getting behind). 

Think about all the mundane decisions you make like this everyday, walk the dog, make dinner, what to wear, etc. So why then do some decisions seem so hard? Well, probably because some decisions are not mundane, nor are the consequences predictable. And if we find the obvious choices undesirable, we can get stressed. When this happens we then fall into dichotomous, or  black or white, thinking

This is bad! When in BW thinking  we can only see two options when, in fact, there are many. We also say things like "I have no choice," which increases our stress and disempowers us emotionally.  The reality is we almost always have multiple choices, unless we are in a moral dilemma, we just dont like any of the options we have identified, the issue we are in, or we feel pressured to decide urgently. 

Let's slow everything down and look at how a decision is actually made if everything is going well in the brain and moral dilemmas are not present. What are the actual components of a need to decide something? Ever thought about that? 

Here is a clear model for the elements and flow of a simple decision-making for a child (a good parenting model, helps kids develop critical parts of the brain gradually so they can make good choices in adulthood):

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Note that this choice is engineered to produce a particular experience for the child, loading one choice up with a good consequence and one with a bad, and limiting all other options. As kids get skilled at choosing, they start to bargain the options, indicating they understand there are many possible choices and consequences. If we grow up with this kind of parenting, we develop a good base for making decisions, and will have a good library of information about what kinds of outcomes we like best. 

In adulthood, no one is controlling the paradigm for you. You have to isolate the issue, select some choices, predict consequences, and choose all by ourself. This can be overwhelming if we weren't taught how to do this in any kind of deliberate way. Remarkabley though, the brain figures it out on its' own. 

The problem is, some part of the proess maybe is underdeveloped due to a lack of instruction and individual differences may play a factor in what we have prioritized in the process. So let's carify how the components work, and you will be better able to assess your own decision making strengths and weaknesses. 

broken image
  1. ISSUE: First, an issue must be present for a decision model to be necessary. The issue is the thing you are trying to solve by making a choice ( i.e. hunger, illness, lack of resource, etc.). There can be only one in this position of the chart.
  2. CHOICES: With respect to issue, there is a bank of possible choices to select from, access to these options is limited by developmental level, skill, imagination, etc. Average adults need at least three (to avoid dichotomous thinking) but no more that 7(we get overwhelmed with more than that, I like 5 for myself). So make your list of possible choices with some creativity.
  3. CONSEQUENCES: Each choice has a host of consequences, some logical and knowable, some abstract and less knowable, some predictable, some unpredictable. This part of is often the most difficult for humans as we dislike ambiguity or uncertianty, so we will often get stuck thinking only of negative consequences or become risk avoidant and choose badly for ourselves. Once you ahve listed some consequences, survey your work; are there any options you can cross out now? 
  4. WEIGHTING: If you have failrly assessed possible outcomes of choices, you should have an array of positve and negative consequence potentials for several options. now the consequences need to be weighted as in how important each one is to you for each choice you are considering seriously (if you haven't been able to rule any choices out before now, this should help). This is where our uniqueness, experiences, and feelings are most helpful. I use "+" and "-" symbols to weight my consequences, asking myself which are most (+++++) to least (------) important to me. 
  5. DECIDING: Now it is time to decide, you don't want to get "analysis paralysis" and linger on analyisng forever. Remember this is not the last decision you are going to make, not even on this issue likely. Review the consequences, think of our past choices, waht you know to true about YOU, and then consider "how do I feel about each possible scenario"? "What does my gut say I would enjoy most?"
  6. FEEDBACK LOOP: Good News!! You will find out if you like our choice or not eventually by living the consequences. This is how you learn more and more about wht works for you and what doesn't. It is also how clever people tolerate what is not in their control and learn from the past. This could be you too!

Common pitfalls in adult decision making are a) to misidentify or collapse the issue (only decide one thing at a time when it is important), b) not pick enough choices to evaluate, c) try to do it all in the head instead of writing it out, d)  dont weight the identified consequences, and/or e) expect to be certain before they decide. Unfortunately, certianty is not something humans can really access often, if at all. The best we can do is evalute probabilities - you have got that covered with the model. 

Now, if we could only control luck (LOL)!


  • What part of this model seems foriegn to me?
  • What part am I good at already?
  • Where in this model could I improve?
  • How am I at tolerating ambiguity and processing feedback from my experiences?
  • Do I trust my process and ability to decide?


I am good at making decisions because I know myself and accept what is not in my control. 



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