Better but Ignored
© 25 Jan 2017 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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On not choosing a known better choice.


Some choices, such as which of my dozen identical pairs of socks to don, have to be made but have no discernable meaning. Many other choices have meaning, but are of uncertain utility. For example, I have five routes from home to work that are all potentially optimal, but which one will be the fastest or most pleasant on any given day is not something I can easily predict. I make a choice, knowing that the choice has some meaning, but without sufficient information to know which I should chose.

But for other choices the right choice is more obvious. I know, for example, that if I smile to the person who is ringing up my purchases in a shop then I will feel better about myself than if I don’t do so, the person in the shop will at least not feel worse than if I frown, and neither of us will have lost anything in the process. Being a friendly purchaser is, in every way I know how to measure it, better. And yet, knowing this, sometimes even with it consciously on my mind at the time, I sometimes choose a dour, frustrated expression instead. Not for any expected utility; I don’t expect the cashier to apologize for my less-than-stimulating shopping experience, nor do I feel that any justice is served by reducing the sunniness of my cashier’s day; I knowingly and consciously choose the less-good option.

This conscious selection of the worse option seems to be a universal aspect of human experience. We are meaner to those we love than we are to strangers, exaggerate for no obvious reason, take things we don’t own from people we don’t want to hurt, indulge in habits we know will bring a net bad feeling for the short-term rise they give now, avoid easy work today knowing it means more, harder work later, and so on. In short, we sin.

“‍Sin‍” is a phrase used almost exclusively by religious people. However, the phenomena it describes are universal and worthy of attention by all people. In secular conversation there is discussion of “‍bad habits,‍” but not all sins are habits: many are one-off unwise decisions. James put it this way: “‍To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.‍” Peculiar as it may seem to the rational mind, not doing good that we know to do is a universal human experience.

I have spent some time pondering the tendency toward sin; and not just because I am a religious person; my profession is the shaping of young minds, giving them the information, skill, and insight needed to better do the work they will later do, and understanding their tendency toward acting contrary to their knowledge seems to me, while not part of mainstream thought on the subject, to be an understanding that could dramatically improve my utility as a teacher.

This effort to understand bad decisions has not yielded any remarkable new insights or brilliant theories of choice. But it has left me convinced that the sum total of motivational theories falls short of describing actual choices. Understanding motivation, expected reward, social impedance, cognitive overload, stress, habit reversion, and so on gives a useful toolbox for creating a positive environment and encouraging good behavior; but in the end people are people and will make their own choices. You and I will sometimes sin, with no one and nothing to blame but ourselves.

One of the most comforting doctrines of (most versions of) Christianity is the doctrine of repentance and forgiveness. It both leaves some responsibility for bad decisions with the individual, thus providing motivation to make better decisions in the future, and provides a “‍move forward‍” assurance that bad decisions in the past may be left in the past. I believe it is a true doctrine, but independent of its truth I also believe it is a doctrine that, properly understood, encourages personal improvement and improves overall utility and happiness.

To all my readers, whatever their religious leanings: I encourage you to adopt the notions of sin, repentance, and forgiveness: recognize the poor decisions you make, determine to strive not to make them again, attempt to repair those negative consequences you have means to repair, and then move forward without lingering on the past. This is not the whole truth; it leaves out the help God can give in each of those steps, for example; but it is a truth, and one I believe we can all benefit from knowing.

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