Decision making is not what it used to be.
Back in the old days, when life was simple and we all lived in a black and white world, we had no health and safety minefields to carefully navigate. There was no social media to shame us into behaving a certain way, and no Daily Mail to remind us that if cancer doesn’t get you – the immigrants certainly will.
To be honest – we barely even thought about the consequences of our actions.
We were fearless. We went with our gut. We did what we thought was best.
Even now, I’m convinced the whole idea of ‘pros and cons’ was invented by an indecisive person as a way to help other indecisive people to become more… indecisive.
‘Go on; write out the pros and cons’.
‘Really…? Do you think that will help?’
‘I don’t know… lets write out the pros and cons and see if it’s a good idea…’
We’re living in fear.
As kids, the monsters would lurk under our beds. We knew the score. Don’t dangle your leg over the edge once the lights went out or you wouldn’t get it back. It was an unwritten (but strictly adhered to) rule.
As adults, the rules have changed. There aren’t any. We now have doubts, insecurities and confusion.
It’s too complicated. What if I do this? What if I do that? What happens next? It’s enough to send a reasonably sane and rational person into the corner so they can cluck like a chicken and shit their pants.
Indecision is where it’s at. Welcome to modern life.
A brief history of modern life
So what do we do? We do nothing.
We give up our decision making responsibilities and allow the world to dictate what we should do and how many times we should do it.
Trends become our style, peers become our identity and headlines become our God.
We passively indulge and surrender. Is this the best decision? Who cares; I’m just glad I didn’t have to make it. I’ll go with the flow. What harm can it do?
At least I’m not upsetting anyone right?
Yeah, we’ll get to that later.
Firstly – let me explain a few things and show you a couple of examples of what the hell I’m ranting on about.
The Peltzman what?
In 1975, Sam Peltzman, a renowned economics professor at the Chicago Booth School of Business, believes that preventative measures in highway safety – such as anti-lock brakes and the compulsory wearing of seatbelts; offer no real benefit because drivers will adjust their behaviour and increase their recklessness once they start feeling safer.
Numerous studies have also shown motorists tend to drive a lot closer to cyclists who wear a helmet than those without. You may pride yourself in sticking to the speed limit inside the comfort and safety of your armoured vehicle but what about those around you? This redistributing effect creates a moral hazard whereby your perceived safety and the potential for reckless behaviour spells trouble for everyone else.
This is known as risk compensation – and although originally theorised and studied within the confines of road safety; it can be seen everywhere. Believe it or not – there is a good chance you are being influenced by its confusing ways every time you head to the beach or put on a condom.
Yes – that’s exactly what I said.
Wearing a condom can trick you into thinking you’re safe from STD’S
We all know that wearing a condom protects us from all sorts of nasties but what you might not realise is that it is foolhardy to put all of your trust into your little latex friend.
Mike Roland, editor of Rubber Chemistry and Technology believes that wearing a condom reduces the risk of AIDS by a factor of 3 but simply choosing your partners wisely reduces the risk factor by 5,000. The point is that while it is obvious that wearing condoms whilst participating in promiscuous sexual activity is advised it can have the effect of tricking people into thinking that they have a green light to blindly engage in risky behaviour.
Also condoms reduce but do not eliminate the chances of pregnancy and transmitting HIV but are not effective in preventing genital ulcer diseases such as herpes and the HPV virus.
Avoiding the sun could be making you sick
For years we have been told that regular exposure to sunlight is akin to standing in the fires of hell for the good it does to our skin. Yet there is striking new evidence that exposure to UVA light is not as bad as once thought and amazingly, regular moderate exposure can actually improve our health.
It is all because of a hormone within our body called vitamin D, which has been linked to a variety of benefits including strengthening of bones via a role in metabolising calcium, reducing the risk of Alzheimers and even an increased risk of developing a cold, flu or tuberculosis when our levels are depleted.
The problem is getting enough vitamin D in our diet alone is nigh on impossible and this in turn leaves many of us with a skin complexion of an albino vampire.
Johan Moan from the Department of Radiation Biology at Oslo University Hospital has found that the benefit of regular exposure to sunlight and in turn, vitamin D far outweighs any potential risks of developing a form of cancer called cutaneous malignant melanoma. “Sun exposure is commonly supposed to be the main cause of cutaneous malignant melanoma (CMM) in most populations. However, the matter is disputed,” said Moan. He believes increased sun exposure to the Norwegian population may increase the number of malignant melanoma deaths by as many as 300 per year but importantly, prevent up to 4000 internal cancer deaths. Sunlight exposure has been linked to a 40% decrease risk in prostate cancer and also a decrease in the risk of breast cancer
Are you with me now?
It’s a logical nightmare.
We’re all guilty of falling victim to these fallacies. A lifetime’s worth of half-truths and hearsay worm their way into our reasoning – burrowing deeper into our subconscious with each Chinese whisper and agenda driven headline.
Take the sensationalists favourite – ‘Eating a high fat diet will raise your cholesterol and lead to heart disease’. Unfortunately; reading such nonsense terrifies the masses into purchasing low fat products which are often filled to the brim with sugar – now viewed by many as the primary reason why arteries are prone to clogging up like the sewerage pipe to a curry house.
In effect, we’re trying to put out a fire by dousing it with oil.
This happens to all of us. We’re carefully led down the path of least resistance only to be sold out later in life when we slowly, but eventually, realise it’s all a sham. The choices you made in the past – taking the easy option, blindly following conventional ‘wisdom’ and engaging auto pilot while you day-dreamed your way into someone else’s life. They were provided for you – wrapped up in a neat little bow for you to tear apart in frustration when the light bulb finally flickers into action.
So if believing the hype and choosing not to engage in dangerous activities and risky behaviour is merely setting you up for other forms of misfortune and misery further down the road – what are we supposed to do? Are we all doomed? Does every path lead to hell?
Risk homeostasis and how you can use this information
You’ve heard of risk compensation – but what about risk homeostasis?
It’s a controversial hypothesis by Gerald J. S. Wilde, a professor at Queen’s University at Kingston, and it is designed to help people compare the costs and benefits of both safe and risky behaviour.
In other words; it’s a posh version of ‘pros and cons’.
It’s indecisive, but it works… I think.
Let’s run through a few common scenarios and apply the risk homeostasis hypothesis to each one and see how we can avoid falling into these thinking traps.
1. Deciding whether to quit your job
Comparatively speaking, there isn’t much difference between the expected costs of risky and safe behaviour, yet the benefits of taking a risk seem to be far greater than the benefits of playing it safe.
Guaranteed income is only as reliable as your worth as an employee. If you’re deemed surplus to requirements, fall below certain expectations or are the unfortunate victim of the ‘last in, first out’ philosophy to cutting costs, there is nothing you can do about it. Where is your comfort zone now?
Ask yourself this; Are you currently happy with your work? If the answer is no, for whatever reason, any perceived benefits of playing it safe will slowly erode into future costs further down the road.
2. Starting a conversation with an attractive stranger
This one’s a no brainer. Is avoiding embarrassment really a benefit?
Is it embarrassing when you’re the only one in your social circle who’s not in a relationship? Is it embarrassing when you’ve reached a certain age and people keep asking why you’re not married? Is it embarrassing when, after years of refusing to talk to attractive strangers, you’re suddenly face to face with someone who’s interested and you lack the social skills to have a fun and flirty conversation?
That’s what happens when you play it safe.
3. Fasting or sticking to a strict diet by eliminating certain foods
The idea of a healthy and balanced diet is seductive. It lures you in with logic and promise. You can have your cake and eat it – as long as you eat something healthier first. It seems the simplest way to a long life – everything in moderation. What could go wrong?
Without discipline or a realistic goal in mind, where do you draw the line? What prevents this cake becoming two cakes, three cakes, or cakes for breakfast? It’s all about calories in vs calories out – a secret war between two invisible armies – and one you can never win, mainly due to the fact it’s impossible to see the enemy with your head stuck in the sand.
Sudden or drastic alterations to your diet will always come with a certain level of risk. Luckily, these potential downsides are easily avoided with a little research, a touch of planning and a large dollop of common sense.
With a bit of effort, all risks are negligible.
Ultimately these effects, theories and philosophies all boil down to the simple idea of choosing to play it safe when presented with a perceived riskier alternative. Alongside the examples above, we could add thousands more and still only scratch the surface of possible ways we are either hurting ourselves or hurting others due to a combination of ignorance and fear.
By not revealing your true feelings towards another person or not allowing yourself to embrace and accept love and affection from someone who cares about you is a classic sign of risk homeostasis. The perceived safety of holding back and not opening yourself up to future hurt is only going to achieve the opposite effect by pushing away the other person.
Your emotional vehicle has just been fitted with ABS, seatbelts and an airbag. You feel invincible. Yet those around you will feel the effects because the pain and suffering will merely radiate outwards.
We think the world is out to get us. We cower behind our decisions in the hope the bad guys won’t notice. If we don’t stick out or warrant undue attention – then surely the misfortune and misery will hit everyone else, right?
Our brain cannot cope with logic. It doesn’t understand statistics or probability. These are all man made creations to give us the illusion we are in control of our destiny.
Life is too random for that. Every choice we make is the culmination of our own experiences and that which filters through from the heavily edited viewing glass we’re presented with. Mix it together and we have no idea what is right or wrong, which is good or bad or whether our final decision makes any difference whatsoever.
We think we do… but we don’t. We’re not supposed to.
Just like a goldfish has no concept of the outside world. It could guess. If it possessed enough of a consciousness to try and understand its limited world – it could give it a real go, but based on what it knows for certain, it would be a futile endeavour.
Instead it goes about its daily business without a care in the world.
A fish doesn’t concern itself with the possibility of failure. It does what feels right at any given time. It’s all about instinct.
It lives its life by osmosis, by choosing the course of action which allows it to achieve its goal as simply as possible.
Why don’t we do that?
Why do humans worry about making the wrong decision?
Why can’t we just be? Why can’t we just do? Who says we have to weigh up the risks before choosing the only option available to us?
The only option available is the right option – and we always know what this is because regardless of how we get to this decision – it’s always the one which, deep down inside our gut, feels right from the outset.
We go through the same dance, every single time.
We know option A is risky, and option B is safe – so we choose option B, yet we know it’s wrong.
We need to pre-empt this reckless behaviour by switching off the mind and trusting ourselves to make the right call.
It’s just common sense.
Do you feel pressured into making certain decisions?
Are you at times negatively influence by your surroundings?
Let me know in the comments, thanks!
It comes down to personality types – you either take risks (even small, calculated ones) or you don’t.
If I’m pondering wether to go for decision a or b, a pro/con list doesn’t help. After a while, I get tired of the indecision and go for what feels right – the riskier option.
Would more risk averse personalities pick the other option? I think so.
mmm … cake for breakfast …
Razwana Wahid recently posted..How the F@!K did you do it, Sally Mercedes (and was there wine?)
Hey, I think we all take risks in life. Even the ultimate safety peeps – just their risks are a lot smaller and spread out. You could flip it around and say that not taking any risks is actually a pretty big risk itself. So if everything is a risk – may as well do it properly 🙂
Stop eating cake for breakfast. That’s for pizza dontcha know.
Welcome to my carb-coma life
razwana wahid recently posted..How the F@!K did you do it, Sally Mercedes (and was there wine?)
I always read your informative articles. This idea of playing it safe has been my biggest obstacle in life coz there is what the society/ the environments that surround us expect from us…Go school get good grades,get admission to college, university, get a good job, work hard get promotion….rily. We are always to see live from on perspective….Now after knowing the other side of live, i have opted for that. My instinct keep telling that me that whatever i want to achieve in life, i cannot achieve by playing it safe, i have to risk, i have to quit start my own job coz that where i will find my happiness, it may not be now but ten years down the line the story will be different
Thanks for your articles they inspires me most
Hi Ben, I understand where you’re at because I’ve done the same. I had to quit my job (and relocate) just to give me the opportunity to start something fresh, and it’s definitely risky. The best way to look at it is that the quicker you make a mistake (we all make them), the quicker you can overcome it. Thanks for your comment.
Whenever I have to make a difficult decision I like to research my options and weigh up all of the pros and cons. That way I can make a better-informed bad decision.
Mark recently posted..The Aim Of The Game Is Not The Game
Wow, some really interesting point of views here! I think most people have an underlying fear of what you’re describing in this article; that their “safe” decisions are just as bad (or even worse) than the risky option.
I like to think of it like this; you either play life to win, or you play to avoid losing. Awesome write-up!
Mathias recently posted..Why You Need to Define Your Goals
Hey, Mathias. I think if someone plays to avoid losing – they’ve already lost. Risks are rarely that bad, and any negative impacts can be dealt with. Playing it safe is a slow and gradual decline into obscurity. Thanks for your comment – I like your thoughts.