Critical Decisions


Critical Decisions

Dr Jonathan Haverkampf


Life consists of decisions we feel we have to get ‘right’. Many areas, such as law and medicine, are largely about making right decisions in the face of incomplete information. Most of our decisions every day are about situations with incomplete information.

One ‘solution’ is not to decide, but this is also a decision. The next question is what constitutes a ‘right’ decision. In law, even if there is clear and unambiguous information on the facts, there may still be uncertainty about the law. In this case one often needs to ‘dig deeper’ and try to find some fundamental legal concepts that may help to answer the question at hands. In most of life this is true as well. If the everyday habits, such as where to have lunch, no longer work, it is important to look at something more fundamental.

Whenever we are faced with a new situation we have to apply our decision rules and the basic values. If you go against your basic values for an extended period of time you will not be happy. So, there are at least two tools we need to make good decisions. A process that tells us which information we need and when we have enough of it, and some basic decision making criteria, our basic values.

Information reduces decision making anxiety. This could be information from other people or from books, journals and the internet. An informed decision is always a better decision. This is the information we process consciously. However, there is also the unconscious processing of information, which we may partially make conscious, but usually do not. To make every bit of information that reaches us conscious is uneconomical, because we can process much more information in parallel if we leave this to unconscious processes, which generate a feeling, either a positive or a negative one, the ‘gut instinct’.

However, information alone is in many everyday decisions not enough, because it merely says what the future could be if you decide one way or another. It still leaves a choice which type of future you prefer. Resolving this choice involves some ‘fuzzy logic’ by making sense of enormous amounts of information that reach us every second. We employ this heuristic logic, which is more like a partly learned and partly hard-wired set of rules of thumb, because otherwise we would get overwhelmed by the information that awaits to be processed. Even if information is filtered out, this decision still needs to be made quickly.

Our values, a set of relatively firmly held beliefs about how people and the world works, should tell us which version of the future is going to make us more happy. But there are less stable yet important factors that influence how we see the world and the decisions we make. Our emotional states have an influence on the probabilities we attach to outcomes and which version of the future seems more attractive in the moment. If one feels depressed, negative outcomes seem more likely and one may not believe that one deserves a bright future. Given the same information, a depressed person may opt for the course that leads to the mediocre future. On the other hand, a manic state may lead one to select a course of action that could lead to a very positive but also highly unlikely future. Focusing on one’s core values and those things that truly make one happy delivers better and more stable results in the long-run.

Using one’s ‘gut instinct’ as information is important, because it is the summary of much of the information that is processed subconsciously, much more than could ever be processed by the narrow focus our consciousness can use. What makes it difficult is that we often have difficulties trusting it. And it can be wrong because one’s information processing also depends on past experiences and the information it has been provide with over a lifetime. If we have witnessed interpersonal conflicts, such as between parents or other people important to us, we may be more cautious in interpersonal situations than they warrant. To eliminate this bias, it is important to distinguish where information belongs to, the current situation or experiences from the past. The more you become an expert on the sources of the information inside yourself and around you, the better you will be in making decisions that make you happy and successful.


© Dr Christian Jonathan Haverkampf. All rights reserved.

Psychotherapy & Counselling, Communication, Medicine (Psychiatry); Dublin, Ireland

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This article is solely a basis for academic discussion and no medical advice can be given in this article, nor should anything herein be construed as advice. Always consult a professional if you believe you might suffer from a physical or mental health condition.