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Carmel M Toussaint - August 30,2017

In my recent book Technology and Society – Rewards and Challenges I have referred choice as one the main drivers of our future individually and collectively. It is therefore important to understand the nature and intricacies of this particular activity that has captivated the attention of philosophers, psychologists and neurologists for centuries.

The above image illustrates the act of making a simple choice. But choosing is not that simple. It can be very complex and that is what I want to focus on. The following pages focus on complex choice. In the 4th century BC the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger claimed “You are your choices”. This was echoed in the preceding century by the philosopher existentialist Jean Paul Sartre “We are our choices” implying we are the architect of our reality for the better or worst. Even in this latter case, if the hazard does not play in our favor, we still can choose to change the course of action. In other words, fate and destiny are quite different. Fate is what puts opportunities or adversities in front of us but our destiny is ultimately determined by our decisions. For instance, if you encounter an investor receptive to your project or involuntarily go bankrupt that was fate. But what you do about it is your destiny. Without entering in too much philosophical debates, choice can be defined as the selection of one option between two or more. This definition negates the situation in which there is only one option or we have no choice in that the option of not choosing is in fact another option. A flip side is a situation where there are too many options such as buying a household item or a car. In these cases, making a choice can be a lengthy process of considering options, and this can be a source of stress. I don’t intend to expand on the paradox of choice, but market forces, enhanced by the advertising world which promotes instant gratification, tend to sustain more choices for buyers of a product or service. As a consequence, our free will is compromised in the decision-making process. For the sake of simplicity, the following pages also do not cover decision made on the basis of mathematical models.

Choice can be broadly divided in three categories: unconscious, simple and complex. The first refers to our automatic reaction to external stimuli such as pain, pleasure or discomfort. The second concerns our satisfaction of physical needs such as eating, sleeping and others. Complex choices involves those we make in the course of our lives on tangible and non-tangible items when many options are available. My focus is on the second and third type of choices about which there is an abundant body of literature written by psychologists, neurologists and sociologists.

The definition of choice mentioned earlier suggests a mental decision making process that precedes the choice. It is important to recognize that choice is influenced by the chooser’s past events and current emotional state. In another words, does this choice minimize our past decision regret or is it in line with our preferences? We all try to avoid repeating our mistakes. Sometimes when we seek advice from others when we actually seeking confirmation for a decision we have already made. The separation of facts from preferences is often overruled by our own judgement based on our capacity to live with the outcome of the choice.

Our capacity to choose between many options is also enormously affected by past our current emotional state. We know it is unwise to make a decision when we are feeling low, upset or preoccupied by too many fresh ideas or options or when we are unfamiliar with the subject at issue. Emotions blur our judgement. Conversely, a high emotional state of success, happiness can generate a positive environment conducive to the selection of an optimal option. Business leaders, salespersons generally capitalize on this latter state.

Simple and Complex Choice Making Process

Choice would be perceived as a non-realistic concept if societal norms and beliefs were not listed as part of the decisional process. We choose to love, to marry, to co-habit, to be vegetarian or not, to drink alcoholic beverages, to smoke or not to be consistent with these norms and other social constructs.

As can be seen, decision about selecting a course of action between many can be difficult even painful sometimes without any certainty about the expected outcome. Moreover, we often don’t realize the interplay of these factors precluding us from selecting the optimal option. In addition, the advertising world grooms us for instant gratification.

How do we counteract the effects of these factors?

First, a good starting point is to become informed about not only the subject at stake but also the details of the options available. This will eliminate fear and fascination; we tend to be frightened by what we don’t know or understand. Getting informed will also reduce the level of emotionality to a manageable level and a rational and productive decision can then be made. Remember this adage: Do not let the tree prevent you from seeing the forest.

Second, we are not going to be happy with the selected option if we aren’t self-aware of who we are and what we want to achieve. Without self-awareness there is the risk of a disconnect between our reality and the outcome of our choice. I think this is valid at the micro (individual) and macro (corporations, society) level. One of the purposes of business retreats of corporations and political parties facing difficult choices is to revisit or redefine their mission statement – who we are and what we want to achieve.

Today’s society is facing many challenges as it adapts to rapidly evolving technology. Instead of following the headlines, our attention should be on trend line. In spite of the temporary current disturbances, I believe that we are heading to a state of abundant goods and services in which each of us can retain our fundamental values. Still people are wondering what career to choose. A case in point is the future of jobs .In my view, the expectation of massive unemployment is without merit. New good jobs are and will continue to be created in liberal professions, automation, biotechnology and other sectors of emerging technologies with unpredictable positive spin offs. This is the trend of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in which we find ourselves. For instance, the real estate and life insurance industry will remain solid for the foreseeable future because of the special client-agent relationship. An unprecedented era of prosperity is coming. It will be easier to manifest our empathy and solidarity with others. As the philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas said almost 700 years ago “a minimum of comfort is necessary in life for the efficient practice of virtue.”

Third, in the first half of this century and thereafter, lifestyle will be more complex because of the quantity, quality and variety of new products and services available. They will be very different from what exists now, I mean very different. Although we cannot separate ourselves from our past, we should be open minded and predisposed to assessment and rationalization to the extent possible before embracing or rejecting a course of action. In this mindset, I suggest that practical wisdom from the Aristotelian perspective be a guiding principle. This philosophy requires the right use of technologies, meaning the ability to discern how or why to act virtuously, and the ability to reflect upon and determine positive ends consistent with the aim of living well.

In line with this website’s objective, this article is intended to generate conversations with visitors. It is by no means a “Magister Dixit,” it is the beginning of a discussion. I look forward to your comments.