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Reasons -> Intentions -> Actions

When I was near the end of my first four year enlistment in the United States Air Force, I had already made a firm decision to separate at four years, which I proclaimed quite vigorously. But during the last few weeks I read some things about decision making–I can’t recall where–and I decided to rationally examine my decision. I regarded this as a fairly safe thing to do, because I was quite certain that I was separating from the Air Force for highly rational reasons in pursuit of my goals.

I sat down with pad and paper, and began listing goals, what I needed to do in order to accomplish them, and then I put these under headings as to whether another four or six years in the Air Force would advance my goals or hinder them. I even included my dislike of military structure and formality into the list as a reason against. I did my best not to weight these in favor of one conclusion or another. I then weighted the various factors to the best of my ability and totaled the scores. I don’t recall the numbers, but it was a substantial balance in favor of another term of service. By my best factoring of the decision, I would be much further along toward my personal goals in six years were I to re-enlist than I would be if I separated and used educational benefits immediately.

There were two really hard things in this for me. First, I had to admit that I had been terribly wrong in a decision I thought I had made quite rationally. Second, I had to admit that and go sign papers. But could a reasonably rational person do otherwise? Well, I did all that, severed the additional six, and then separated, and I have never regretted it, nor have I regretted separating at the ten year mark. (At that point it was either plan for 20+ or get out.)

A few years after this a psychologist told me that people do not generally make decisions for the reasons they profess. Rather, they make decisions emotionally and then rationalize them. He said this isn’t universal, that there are varying amounts of rationality that are pre-decision, but that it is very common. I don’t know how right he is, but I was immediately reminded of my reenlistment, and while I have rarely put a decision to that kind of testing, I know there are other times when I feel very strongly that I want to do X while I know that rationally the best choice is Y. I have also observed many friends who will express one decision, but based on every expression they have made themselves, it appears that they would make a different choice if they thought the decision through in terms of their goals. (Neither of these have the faintest bit of scientific pretensions–they are absolutely personal and anecdotal and should be taken as such.)

Of course, the follow up to making a decision or forming an intention is action. I’ll illustrate with myself again. I frequently forget things. Just about anything I am doing becomes my current total focus, and I’ll forget anything else. For example, had I promised my wife to be at lunch in five minutes just before I started writing this post, it is unlikely that I would remember that promise until I finished the post. Do note here that having thought about that issue, I know that my wife is at her work, and I’m here in my home office, thus while I may have forgotten many things, that is not one of them!

Several people have informed me that the things I forget must not have very much priority to me, otherwise I wouldn’t forget them. I have put that to the test recently since at the persuasion of wife and many friends, when I recently replaced my cell phone I replaced it with a PDA. This thing lets me easily enter lists, and it rings alarms when things are due. It’s easy enough for me to enter data so that I generally don’t forget to put stuff in the phone. (My previous phone had a simple scheduler, but it was clumsy to use.) The other evening I had completely forgotten about a meeting I wanted to attend. It was Monday night. In church on Sunday the pastor mentioned a meeting at the church. It was something I would want to be at. I wrote a note on a slip of paper and put it in the PDA after church. The PDA dinged Monday night giving me about a half an hour to get to the meeting. Using my memory, I would have missed that meeting and I would have regretted it. Despite my dislike for sudden shifts of direction, I attended. The PDA helped me carry out my actual intentions based on what I hope was a rational assessment of where I should be.

My point here is that intentions, even quite firm intentions are not always easy to put into action. It’s not that I want to miss lunch or dinner when I tell my wife I’ll be back in 10 minutes and wind up engrossed in some piece of writing an hour later. I do recognize that the human body must eat. But other factors intervene.

My overall point is that between our perceiving reasons for action and the action we actually carry out there can be a considerable gap, so much so that we might not even recognize the connections if they didn’t happen right in our own brains, and sometimes not even then.

Politically, this apparently extends to opinion polls and voting. CQ Politics has an interesting article, Polls: Can’t Always Trust Them, But Can’t Live Without Them, that discusses something very similar in voting. How well do voters know their own intentions? Do they know for sure whether they are going to vote? Do they really know how likely it is that they will change their minds? I would add that the less each decision is based on conscious, rational factors, the more likely the voter might either be wrong, or might be swayed by similar non-rational or irrational factors.

Of course this doesn’t aim at any particular group of voters. We’re all capable of such rationalization or failure to carry through both in politics and in the rest of our lives. I just think it is both interesting and valuable to think about how we think.

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  1. I think Stephen (Steven?) Pinker has done some research about decision-making, but I can’t remember where I read about it, unfortunately.

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