How Do We Make Decisions when the Head and Heart are at Odds?


Photo by Emre Keshavarz, 

Are you one of those people, like me, who analyzes a decision to death? Who makes T-bar lists of pros and cons for every decision? Yet, as economist Russ Roberts points out in his new book Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us, often the pros and cons are not fully visible. We can’t rationalize our way through every problem. Life is messy and unpredictable. What kind of thinking can help us when we are wrestling with questions like: 

Who should I date?

Which new job should I try out?

Should I move in with my best friend?

Roberts puts his economist mind to work on questions like these. And like all of his books, Wild Problems is a fun, accessible read. You’ll find anecdotes ranging from Adam Smith to eharmony. Roberts pokes some lighthearted fun at biologist Charles Darwin, who was earnestly trying to apply scientific rationalism to the question of marriage. Or, from his own life, Roberts candidly shares his decision-making process for whether to accept an overseas job offer. 

Roberts is an economist, who specializes in quantitative analysis and rational frameworks like trade-offs, such as cost-benefit and opportunity cost, which, as he puts it, is about “what we give up when we choose one thing over another.” For messy life decisions, however, he takes an unexpected turn. Rather than being strictly transactional or utilitarian, he encourages us to consider human flourishing and altruism.

In the chapter excellently titled “How to Get Over Yourself,” Roberts advises,  

Try to be aware of your natural impulse to ask, what’s in it for me, and make room instead for what the people around you need for the journey we’re all in together. A nontrivial part of this book is about the danger of focusing too narrowly on your personal satisfaction. (p. 131)

This holds true whether we are a parent, a sibling, a spouse, an employee, a boss, or simply a friend. 

And for those volunteering or working in nonprofits, this rings especially true. Social entrepreneurs feel strongly about the needs around them and about the consequences if they don’t act. Think of the risks taken by those working in health care or in war zones, first responders, and those working for women’s education in countries where gender-based discrimination is not yet outlawed or enforced. Think of the lunch counter protestors during the American civil rights movement. There is courage. Altruism. Sacrifice.  I like how Roberts puts it, “Pain, especially when it’s in service of an ideal, can be a source of meaning. That doesn’t make us irrational. It often makes us admirable.”  

Roberts advises, “The rule is simple: Privilege your principles. Your decisions define who you are. Don’t make trade-offs when it comes to your essence.”

I couldn’t agree more.