Archive for September 2013
In his wonderful book on obliquity, John Kay tells of a famous letter in which Benjamin Franklin describes a decision-making method. Here is a description of Franklin’s method, excerpted from his letter:
…my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.
And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.
Modern decision making techniques often claim to do better than Franklin because they use quantitative measures to rate decision options However, as I have pointed out in this post, measures are often misleading. There are those who claim that this can be fixed by “doing it correctly,” but this is a simplistic view for reasons I have discussed at length in this post. So, despite all the so-called “advances” in decision making, it is still pretty much as Franklin wrote: “the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities” .
With that for background, I can now get to the main point of this post. The reader may have wondered about my use of the word gambit rather than technique (or any of its synonyms) in the title of this post. A quick look at this online dictionary tells us that the two words are very different:
Technique (noun): the body of specialized procedures and methods used in any specific field, especially in an area of applied science.
Gambit (noun): a manoeuvre by which one seeks to gain advantage.
Indeed, as Kay mentions in his book, Franklin’s method is often used to justify decisions that are already made – he calls this Franklin’s Gambit.
Think back to some of the recent decisions you have made: did you make the decision first and then find reasons for it or did you weigh up the pros and cons of each option before reaching your decision? If I’m honest, I would have to admit that I have often done the former. This is understandable, even defensible. When we make a decision, we have to make several assumptions regarding the future and how it will unfold. Since this is based on (some times educated) guesswork, it is only natural that we will show a preference for a choice that we are comfortable with. Once we have settled on an option, we seek reasons that would enable us to justify our decision to to others; we would not want them to think we have made a decision based on gut-feel or personal preferences.
This not necessarily bad thing. When decisions cannot be rated meaningfully, any choice that is justifiable is a reasonable one….providing one can convince others affected that it is so. What one should guard against is the mindless use of data and so-called rational methods to back decisions that have no buy in.
Finally, as we all know well from experience, it is never a problem to convince ourself of the rightness of our decision. In fact, Mr. Franklin, despite his pronouncements on Moral Algebra understood this. For, as he once wrote:
…so convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one had a mind to do.
Indeed, “reasonable” creatures that we are, we will desperately seek reasons for the things we wish to do. The difficulty, as always, lies in convincing other reasonable creatures of our reasonableness.