On the Difficulty of Making a Decision

See here for the Finnish version: Päätöksen tekemisen vaikeudesta

When we speak of a decision being difficult or complicated, we usually mean it is difficult or complicated to select the right alternative out of many. What I want to speak of here, however, is how complicated making a decision or choice can be even given that the chooser has already selected the best alternative. A clear example of a decision that is complicated in this sense is overcoming an addiction or otherwise changing one’s habits or life; it should be clear enough that such a decision presents challenges beyond simply recognising that this change is necessary.

Our prototypical idea of deciding seems to be this: We are presented with some alternatives, and the decision to choose one is a simple, effortless act of our mind, with the choice either based on reasons we can consciously evaluate, or based on nothing but the act of deciding itself, as if we were asked to press either of two buttons with no different consequences that we would know of. Well, there’s a lot more to it than that, on several levels.

For a start, the conscious, reasoning part of our mind is certainly not always in control. It can happen that we reason one way but act in another anyway, as when weakness of will makes us succumb to temptation when we don’t think it’s a good idea. On the other hand, it can also happen that we have the impression that our conscious reason is in control, when in fact we’re demonstrably acting for unconscious reasons, and the reasons we can give consciously must be only rationalisations. Somewhere between might be placed the case where it felt like a good idea at the time, but afterwards we can only call it weakness of will, recognising our earlier rationalisations as deficient.

The fact of self-control sometimes being inadequate affects making a decision in an immediate sense. It can be difficult to go through with the choice you select, even during one single occasion. In the long term, it gets even more complicated. You can be a very different person, in a sense, when you are, say, objectively thinking about the dangers of smoking and deciding to quit; and later when you’re simply craving for a cigarette. Your desires and feelings will be different, and, I’d say from personal experience (not with smoking but other things), things outside you may seem very different too. The desire to stop won’t automatically be present so strongly any more while the desire to smoke will feel strong indeed. The reasons to quit will perhaps also feel less pressing, whereas the craving for more that felt like such an insignificant reason to act on earlier now feels significant. I’m not saying this will match everyone’s experience, but it seems to be something that happens.

Indeed, the different strengths of different desires and other motivations at different times would seem to be a reason why we need concepts like right, wrong, should, must not, and so on, in other words, principles, rules and evaluations both moral and instrumental. They keep track of what we believe will benefit us (or those goals we hold valuable in their own right) in the long term, and of what kind of consequences our actions we have to look out for, as opposed to just what we feel like right now.

One thing that this means for decisions is that to make a long-term decision that will require many individual decisions all in accordance with it and in the face of temptation to do otherwise, we must somehow make it into a principle strong enough to hold through all those situations. As we can fail to truly make the decision in the moment we want due to weakness of will, failure at self-control, we may fail to carry out a long-term decision by failing to do this.

There are many factors affecting whether we can successfully make a long-term or complicated decision or choice in this sense. Psychological studies show that some ways of trying to change one’s habits or achieve goals are on average less effective than others; trying to rely on willpower is ineffective and making a detailed plan is effective, for example. Clearly understanding your situation, why you want to quit smoking (or whatever), what the costs and benefits of the choice will be, how you can best achieve these goals, all are important factors. In general, understanding and knowledge are very important. Sometimes, you might not even know what the thing you want to decide to choose really consists of, such as if you’re trying to eat less but don’t even realise how much all those snacks during the day amount to. Another important and helpful thing is to have your values and self-image harmonised around what you want changed. Beliefs about yourself and the thing you want to change are important, too — simply believing you can change makes it more likely to happen, whereas believing, for example, that your addiction is a sickness that can control you can lead to things happening as if it is. (It seems it’s actually statistically slightly better to quit drinking by yourself than via Alcoholics Anonymous, no matter what they might say themselves, since while they provide support, they also promote the belief that you can’t do without it.) Other unconscious blocks may also keep us back from reaching goals; something might, for example, for no real external reason, feel so impossible you never get started trying it.

Changing one’s habits or making some other similar change in one’s life can be instantaneous. Some people just quit smoking in one go when they suddenly realise they really want to stop. Even then, though, there are probably other factors than just desire or willpower behind it. Often, maybe even typically, such decisions are not simple like that. They may be a long struggle against inclinations in yourself you don’t want to foster. Particularly in such a case, understanding what the behaviour you want to change is about, in general and for you, and knowing techniques to deal with it, is important. On the other hand, in case of a long-term change, instead of willpower in the moment, the important thing might be the determination to keep on trying.

Getting rid of an addiction is the obvious example here, but to remind you, that’s not the only sort of complicated decision. Others might include the resolution to treat someone better, to be more productive in your work, even to be happy with what you have. These are all seemingly simple ideas that in fact involve many individual choices as well as variables that you may not be aware of that affect either your ability to keep making the right individual decisions or your ability to know what they even are in the first place.

By managing to make the choices we would like to make, we make ourselves more free. So also by understanding what decisions really are the ones that we should want to make based on what we really value most deeply. Freedom isn’t just being able to do what you feel like at the moment, it’s ability to realise your true goals. Similarly, when we think of responsibility, it’s not just responsibility for a single act in the moment, but for how we have managed ourselves on the whole to affect what our choice will be. The simplest example of this is that you’re not exempt from responsibility for things you did while drunk if you chose to get drunk in the first place. Sometimes, when we look at our own actions and the things that affect them, we have reason to question our freedom, because things rising from our evolutionary past, our societal programming, or our personal “neuroses” undermine our ability to think and act reasonably. But in recognising such tendencies, we gain the possibility of affecting and controlling them. In a way, humans act a lot like we might think “mere animals” do, but we do have the ability to rise above that. Reason doesn’t automatically work to effect that, but combined with understanding and effort, it can be used to do so.

In other words, we certainly don’t just always choose the best option according to reason, even if we have identified it — but it is desirable that we should, and by recognising our possibility and responsibility to do so, and understanding the other things that drive us, we have the possibility of achieving that. This is why decisions and choices should not be viewed as just happening in a single action, in a single moment. Neither should they be viewed as automatic acts of will, as you can try to make a certain decision and fail. You still bear the responsibility for your actions if you do, but it’s important to understand the difference.


  • Baumeister, Roy (editor): Handbook of Self-Regulation.
  • Peele, Stanton: 7 Tools to Beat Addiction.
  • Wiseman, Richard: 59 Seconds. Change Your Life in Under a Minute. (I am not endorsing this book on the whole — its concept and many recommendations for action are not well thought out — but I don’t have any particular reason to doubt its factual claims, and I remember it saying something about the things that studies have shown to be effective in achieving goals.)

Sama suomeksi.


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