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Solving the Decision-making Crisis: Making the most of our free will

Updated: Aug 20, 2023


We are amid a growing global decision-making crisis. The crisis strikes at our confidence - in both ourselves and our most sacred institutions. The state of affairs may lead to violence. It started slowly, subtly. But it is quickly impacting many people across many countries. It is particularly severe in the United States and other countries with free will-promoting cultures. This article frames the decision-making challenge and suggests high-impact solutions.


About the Author: Jeff Hulett is a career banker, data scientist, economist, and choice architect. He is an executive with the Definitive Companies. He teaches personal finance at James Madison University and provides personal finance seminars. Jeff is an author and his latest book is Making Choices, Making Money: Your Guide to Making Confident Financial Decisions.


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Our genes make us more susceptible to the decision-making problem.

  3. The decision-making crisis acceleration: The data explosion flips the censorship script.

  4. Free-will countries are most susceptible to the decision-making crisis.

  5. Solving the decision-making crisis: Becoming The New Citizen of Democracy.

  6. Pulling it all together - A picture is worth a thousand words.


2. Our genes make us more susceptible to the decision-making problem.


Evolutionary biology and neurobiology are humanity's superpowers. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin taught the world about Natural Selection [i]. This is nature’s way of evolving biological creatures, including humans. Natural selection is why humans have come to dominate the planet. It is the source of humanity's incredible advances. The reality and challenge on point for this article are that natural selection and evolution are VERY SLOW. The acceleration of humanity's advances far outstrips our rate of biological evolution. Many of today's standard decisions and cultural decision expectations exceed our natural ability to process those decisions. This environmental vs. genetic differential is at the core of the decision-making crisis. Dr. Peter Attia is a medical doctor and longevity expert. Dr. Attia observes:

"The conundrum we face is that our environment has changed dramatically over the last century or two, in almost every imaginable way -- while our genes have scarcely changed at all."

In the case of decision-making, our brains run genetic algorithms fine-tuned by evolution. These naturally occurring biological decision engines are found in our genome and DNA. [ii] Our genetic algorithms are geared toward automating important decisions necessary to pass on our genetic code to our children. But this VERY SLOW time lag means that those genome-impacting decisions that trained our genome, while important millennia ago, are not so important today. I am referring to decisions important at the time of Jesus Christ or even earlier. Based on those much earlier days, today's humans are really good at ancient decisions like:

  • Should I run from this lion?!

  • Should I fight this rival tribe member?!

In today’s world, those kinds of life-saving "fight & flight" decisions are not particularly relevant. Today, we need to make complex, multi-criteria, multi-alternative decisions. We are NOT naturally good at today’s complex decisions because our brains have not YET evolved to effectively handle the necessary decision process. These are more practical but complex decisions commonly faced today. These complex decisions often have a long-term and uncertain future component to them, such as:

  • What are the 5-10 things important to me about my education and how do I apply them to thousands of college or related alternatives?

  • What are the 5-10 things important to me about recruiting a new employee and how do I apply them to hundreds of alternatives?

  • What are the 5-10 things important to me about living a long, healthy life and how do I apply them to the many medical treatment options and potential health outcomes?

Today's run-of-the-mill complex, multi-criteria, multi-alternative decisions often have thousands of decision combinations calling for evaluation. Complex decisions require a blend of judgment, emotion, and objective information for proper evaluation. A surprising challenge is how naturally difficult it is for people to determine their own utility. Our utility is the economics word for a weighted set of preferences indicating the intrinsic value we place on a good or service. [iii] Our brains are naturally poor at these sorts of decisions. So much so, that neuroscientists and behavioral scientists have identified cognitive biases that make a difficult decision situation even worse. [iv]


Cognitive psychologist and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon aptly named the cognitively biased decision outcome "satisficing." [v] This happens because our brains try to force today’s complex decisions into the fight & flight decision framework that our ancient brain algorithms are naturally running. Our fight & flight brain favors speed over accuracy. To accomplish fast decisions, our fight & flight brain will prune the decision combinations from thousands to a handful. It is this pruning process that leads to a loss of decision fidelity and bias. These biases make it seem like we are making the right decision even when we are not! Our own intuition may trick us! This could create a confidence crisis. Understanding our decision challenges is both liberating and scary:

  • Liberating - because it is good to know the source of a persistent, hidden life challenge.

  • Scary - because without assistance, it is challenging to know when we may be under the influence of a cognitive bias.


3. The decision-making crisis acceleration: The data explosion flips the censorship script.


The decision-making crisis has been amplified as the world transitions from the industrial era to the information era. Censorship impacts how we collect decision-critical information. How we experience censorship has dramatically changed as a result of the information era transition. Censorship used to be a problem of information scarcity. You may associate censorship with "book burning zealotry" commonly taught in history class. How people experience censorship critically impacts decision-making. Think of an information-scarce decision made after the American Revolution:


Should I get on this Conestoga wagon and head west where land is free and the soil is fertile?"


-- Alternatively --


"Should I stay in Boston and potentially starve?"


Then, the operative question becomes: "Where do I find the information to help me decide?” Before the information era, that information was very difficult to come by. Censorship was more likely to be the result of withholding information, regardless of whether the withholder did it purposefully or not. [vi] That "Go west, young man" decision example is still more like the fight & flight decisions from millennia ago.


Fast forward to today, the information era has dramatically changed our decision environment. Today, the ability of our environment to potentially censor necessary information has flipped 180 degrees. In our information-abundant and social media-connected world, we need to subtract un-curated data to make decisions instead of collecting scarce information. Per our ancient genetic algorithms, the subtract-the-un-curated-data process will naturally seem overwhelming and confidence-decreasing. This means your decision process and decision assistance are more important than ever. Today, censorship has been recast as drowning people in “fake news” or other un-curated data. Sociologist and University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci said [vii]:

“The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself.”

As a result of the transition to the information era, our inappropriate-for-today’s-decisions genetic algorithms have become more obviously deficient in just the last couple of decades. In bygone times, collecting necessary information was the challenge and making the decision was more straightforward. Today, it is the opposite. In today's time, information is abundant, but using the information and making the decision is the challenge. Our current data censorship environment has undergone a massive change.


4. Free-will countries are most susceptible to the decision-making crisis.


The American form of government is based on free will. The United States Declaration of Independence unambiguously states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Think of these "unalienable rights" as choices. For example, Americans may choose to speak, assemble, pray, report, and petition the government as per the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Most importantly, within reason, Americans are free to choose how they express these unalienable rights. As an ironclad cultural doctrine, people are expected to make their own pursuit-of-happiness decisions. Free will is popularly considered one of the most precious rights we have in a free country. Many other countries have some form of free will integrated into their culture.


Choice has its challenges. Behavioral scientists appreciate that choice has a way of being greatly influenced by the environment. The University of Chicago behavioral economist and Nobel laureate Richard Thaler said [viii]:

"People have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option.... Just as no building lacks an architecture, so no choice lacks a context.”

The free will basis for the decision-making crisis occurs because:

  • Democracy expects people to make their own decisions,

  • Today, people are virtually drowned in data to make their own decisions,

  • However, our brains have not yet evolved to handle those decisions naturally.

Our culture considers helping someone to decide as possibly crossing the line. Regulations may seek to shield our decisions from "undue influence." [ix] A seemingly prudent but decision-insensitive attitude is: “Hey, here is all the information I have available, but it is up to you to decide. Let me know what you think!” The problem is our brains have not yet evolved to determine the best “what you think” answer. This is especially true with unpracticed, infrequent decisions. In today's data-abundant world, potential undue influence impact has a way of getting conflated with free-will-enhancing decision assistance. They are very different. Decision process assistance occurs without undue influence upon the decision. The undue influence doctrine may have been appropriate in the earlier "censorship by data scarcity" time. However, in our current "censorship by data abundance" time, this legal doctrine may hurt the people it is intended to protect. As a result, free-will country culture and legal doctrines intensify the decision-making crisis.


Take, for example, the highly sensitive matter of the January 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol. This attack resulted in the death of Americans at American hands. As stated in the U.S. congressional committee investigation report: [x]

“The Committee’s investigation has identified many individuals involved in January 6th who were provoked to act by false information about the 2020 election repeatedly reinforced by legacy and social media.”

Effectively, the attackers did not subtract false data and underweighted moderating information. This is a classic decision-making challenge.

  1. Do Americans have the right to protest? - YES, of course!

  2. Do Americans have the right to kill or injure in the course of protesting? - NO!

  3. Do Americans have the responsibility to curate data and weigh all the facts? YES!

As we show at the end of the article, there is absolutely a way to help people with decision-making, enabling them to express their free will, and doing so without undue influence upon their decision.


A core tenet of democracy is that citizens are responsible for being informed. Our schools regularly teach as much. Given the decision-making crisis, it is likely time to rethink how children are taught to inform themselves. The New Citizen of Democracy should:

  1. Practice data curation -- that is -- learn how to subtract data -- separate the signal from the noise -- and build understanding to update beliefs.

  2. Practice the best decision process -- that is -- learn how to leverage curated information to make the best belief-updating decisions.


5. Solving the decision-making crisis: Becoming The New Citizen of Democracy.


At its simplest, decision-making may be boiled down to a typical "input-process-output" systems model. This describes our typical approach to gathering various decision information (input), then evaluating this information via the decision process we normally use (process), and then making a decision based on the decision process result (output).

As we discussed above, our long-time cultural habit is to focus on the data input side of the decision process. The information era signals the need to change those cultural habits. We need to move toward a better decision process. Collecting data before being grounded in the decision process is like learning about a handful of trees before understanding the forest. The problem often arises that you were learning about trees from the wrong forest!

Decision process achievement is today's citizen success imperative.


The technology to solve the decision-making crisis exists today. Behavioral economists describe choice architecture as a critical part of the answer. Choice architecture fills the decision gap created by our brain’s abilities and our cultural decision-making expectations. Choice architecture enhances individual free will by strengthening our decision process. Choice architecture does not make the decision for you – it provides the proper decision environment enabling YOUR best decision. Good choice architecture has three primary benefits called Decision A-C-T:

  • Acceleration-enabling faster, lower-cost decisions. It enables a nimble decision environment.

  • Confidence-inspiring process causes people to be more confident with individual or organizational decisions, increasing buy-in, and decision uptake.

  • Transparency-providing reporting, documentation, and artifacts to help communicate the decision. Good especially for “second-guessers” like family, boards, or regulators.


Choice Architecture solutions

The following are resources providing for optimal decisions using tools that enable you to achieve conviction in your confidence! These are solutions to develop your own choice architecture. They are high-value and easy to use. For most decisions, they are well worth the time and expense to ensure the best decision and confidence validation. Solutions are provided for individual decision-making, enterprise-level group decision-making, and everyone in between. They all share the core capabilities enabling people’s confidence and the best decisions.


Definitive Choice: For individual or small organization groups - This smartphone app provides a convenient way to enter and weigh your preference criteria, then, enter your potential decision alternatives and their costs. Behind the scenes, it uses decision science to apply your tailored preferences and preference weights to score each of your alternatives. Ultimately, it renders a rank-ordered report to help you understand which alternatives will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Using a decision support app will 1) save you time, 2) optimize your economic value achieved, and 3) increase your decision-making confidence!

Definitive Pro: For corporate and larger organizations - This is an enterprise-level, cloud-based group decision-making platform. Confidence is certainly important in corporate or other professional environments. Most major decisions are done in teams. Group dynamics play a critical role in driving confidence-enabled outcomes for those making the decisions and those responsible for implementing the decisions. Definitive Pro provides a well-structured and configurable choice architecture. This includes integrating and weighing key criteria, overlaying judgment, integrating objective business case and risk information, then providing a means to prioritize and optimize decision recommendations. There are virtually an endless number of uses, just like there are almost an endless number of important decisions. The most popular use cases include M&A, Supplier Risk Management, Technology and strategy portfolio management, and Capital planning.


6. Pulling it all together - A picture is worth a thousand words.


We are amid a growing global decision-making crisis. The crisis causes people to lose confidence in social institutions and themselves. The problem has been known to lead to violence. It started slowly, subtly. But it is quickly impacting many people across many countries. It is particularly acute in the United States and other countries with free will-promoting cultures. We walked through the decision-making crisis causes and suggest solutions.


Causes:

  1. Our own neurobiology is why people are naturally subject to the decision-making problem,

  2. The information era transition changes how we experience censorship and causes the decision-making crisis to accelerate. This began in just the last few decades, and

  3. Our precious free will culture causes increased susceptibility to the decision-making crisis.

Solutions:

4. Choice Architecture helps you become a better decision-maker. It starts with data curation allowing you to cut through complex decisions. Choice architecture accelerates your decisions, provides conviction in your confidence, and provides needed transparency.


Notes

[i] Darwin, Origin Of Species, 1859


[iii] Hulett, Assessing value like Warren Buffett: Price is what you pay, value is what you get, The Curiosity Vine, 2022




[vi] Economists do not generally assign intention to systemic outcomes. Economists think in terms of incentives. When it comes to censorship and withholding information -- there are often systemic rules and habits creating incentives for not providing information. Often, those incentives could be as simple as "I (the withholder) am unaware of the need to provide information" or "I do not have the resources or medium to properly provide the information." In these cases, the withholding or censoring of information is more akin to an error of omission and not an intentional error of commission. But, in either case, the withholding of information creates an error for someone else.


[ix] Editors, Undue Influence, Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School, 2023

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