Making the right choice is an art

How do we make the decision to remove all of our clothes and then run out onto the ground in front of 50,000 spectators? According to 23-year-old plumber and gas-fitter Ben Jenkins, after a period of contemplation, the decision to be the first streaker at the new Perth stadium last week was due to "peer pressure".

It can be instructive to strip down decisions to understand how they were made. It can improve our decision-making by pointing to flaws in our processes, and it can also help us to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of any decision.

The ingredient in a good decision that is most commonly recommended is information. The informed decision is held to be a good decision. By contrast, poor decisions are frequently held to be misinformed. This type of argument is rolled out frequently by policy types trying to help young people make career decisions. The more information you can throw at them, the better their career decisions will be.

However, insisting on information can segue into prevarication, because too much information is never enough. Ironically it can also lead to misinformed decisions that are based on out-of-date, or just plainly false, data. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and in the hands of the decision-maker who mistakes a few facts for a final argument, the results can be unfortunate.

Reasoning, that is clear, measured, reasoned, slow, and fully articulated (explicit) frequently has the hallmark of a wise decision. Judicial decisions, royal commissions and the like have authority in part due to this deliberative process. However, they can take a long time, and are not always the answer if more urgent action is required.

Decisions can be individual or consultative. One is not necessarily better than the other. Crowds are not always wise, and consultation takes time, and can be subject to political processes such as lobbying. Individual decisions raise the spectre of self-interest. They are also more likely to be influenced by personal beliefs, implicit or explicit bias, emotional and reactive factors. In contrast decisions can be selfless and made for the benefit of the many at the personal cost of the decision-maker. Often such decisions are spurred by strong personal belief or conviction.


Some decisions are reactive or even peevish. 

Lucien Freud, was reportedly so jealous of fellow artist Francis Bacon, that he purchased one of Bacon's best works and then refused all requests to display it publicly in retrospectives.

Some decisions are driven by hubris. There is nothing more guaranteed to screw up decision-making than a bit of success. The betting industry know that an early win can get a punter hooked, and their short-term loss, becomes a long term gain. Hubris – what could possibly go wrong, I am a genius-type thinking – can have catastrophic outcomes.

Snap or time-pressured decisions are not necessarily inferior to more deliberative processes. There is much to be said for listening to the inner voice, intuition or hunch. Many's a time where good decisions are lost on the wind of voices of doubters. Sometimes the snap decision can be inspired.

The tragic decision makes for a better story, though not for the central character. The decision that unravels leading to ultimate destruction has long been a source of fascination. They become the cautionary tales and frequently the leadership case studies, and great works of theatre.

We should not need peer pressure to strip off the layers to see how we are swinging in our decisions. If we did it more often in life, it could lead to a lucky streak.

 Jim Bright is Professor of career education and development at ACU and own Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy.