Bundling life’s decisions

Years ago I read a research psychologist, whose name I’ve lost, who maintained that we tend to buy into “decision packages,” meta-decisions that include answers to many further choices. (The term decision package is frequently used in zero based budgeting, a usage that bears little relation to my topic.) Decision packages are useful and ubiquitous. Once we make a decision of this comprehensive sort, a host of further decisions are made for us. What a time and energy saving phenomenon!

But bundling a myriad of choices into one package is more than merely a mental device for efficiency. Packaging decisions is essential to deal with the complexity of life. The mechanism operates at all levels, some as broad as philosophies of life, some as narrow as deciding how to interact with other drivers on the road.

In America as we meet another driver, our pre-accepted “right bias” guides specific single decisions. Without taking time for thought we steer to the right as we approach each other and, if meeting at an otherwise unsigned intersection, we allow the car on the right to proceed first. The right bias is a decision package which saves us from having to make individual decisions about each included element. (This particular package is enforced by law, but most decision packages are voluntary. In fact, “I always obey the law” is a decision package itself, as is “I obey the law except when there is a low probability of getting caught.”) These characteristics apply to beliefs as well as decisions. If I’m certain the JFK assassination was due to a vast conspiracy, my beliefs about the speed of firing a semi-automatic rifle as well as Oswald’s time in the USSR will be lined up to fit.

Large decision packages might include choosing a political party, a sports team, or a nation with which to identify. I myself created a decision package called Policy Governance®, an optimized job design for boards of directors. The framework is a conceptually coherent and complete system. So once it is chosen, the handling of all further decisions must conform to the framework, otherwise it’d be like loading a PC program into a Mac.

When biologists do their work, they bring into the task at hand precepts of post-Darwinian evolution. They don’t reargue each part of Darwinism as they seek to understand some minuscule phenomenon, just as Methodist congregations don’t reconsider theology with their choice of next Sunday’s hymns.

Fans of the Chicago Cubs or Manchester United are known to hold tightly to their rigidly fixed sports idolatry. They can be quite closed-minded in their refusal to entertain data contradicting their teams’ virtues. In the depth of their commitment, they can be as unchangeable as any Catholic, Sunni, or evangelical Protestant. But now that that I’ve brought up religion (surprise!), let me say a few words about religious decision packages.

Once one has adopted a religion, for most adherents the many tenets and rules don’t require further argument. They are simply part of the package. Because religion purports to answer many of the most vexing issues of existence and behavior, it is an unusually powerful decision package and, therefore, highly resistant to change. Even seriously inspecting foundation beliefs can be embarrassing.

To call any decision package into question, much less to abandon it, is to be inundated with all the subordinate questions it formerly answered for us. Understandably, we avoid that by resistance to change or to serious reconsideration of a package. No wonder people vehemently fight against not only changing their religions, but even closely questioning them with the emotional disinterest we can sometimes give life’s other packages. Psychologically, far too much is at stake.

The powerful grip we have on the religion we’ve chosen (or, more likely, inherited) may even exceed our grip on the powerful “my country, right or wrong” package. Please note that I am not making a judgment on any one of these decision packages, just noting them. My point is not that we should abandon the packages, but to recognize them and be able to subject them to inspection as honestly as we can. That prescription is easier to say than to follow, since any package that we hold so deeply and that so broadly affects how we see and conduct life–whether a religion or not–is extraordinarily hard to dislodge. If a vital package is threatened, we can muster severe vehemence in its defense. Undoubtedly, that’s the reason folk wisdom advises us to avoid discussions of religion and politics in a social gathering.

One less obvious reason for the tenacity of packages is that the very automaticity of their subordinate decisions can render the package itself less apparent. In other words, the parts can be more visible than the whole. This is similar to the effect of organizational policy that’s never been stated explicitly. Such unstated policies are not without effect, but the guidance and restrictions they impose are fraught with ambiguous interpretations. Perversely, sub-decisions, although they are affected by the larger inexplicit policy, can perforce be inconsistent and even contradictory among themselves. It is not uncommon that someone outside a given religion can see resulting inconsistencies and non-sequiturs to which the faithful are blind. Outside consultants peering into an organization can often see with the same advantage.

In musing about this phenomenon, one conclusion I’ve reached is that we all have more of these decision packages than we’ll ever be aware of. Although these packages are useful devices for living and not inherently bad, they’d serve us better if treated as temporary and open to challenge and reassessment. Too, the more explicit we can make our decision packages, the more they will be visible, enabling more open inspection and possible change. Oh, my; I almost forgot to say that we atheists, agnostics, deists, and other freethinkers have some pretty strong decision packages ourselves!

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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