Most quoted. Often abused. Taken out of context from time to time. Told and retold a million times. Kept alive by all these reasons. ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost is one of those poems that come in handy across cultures, age groups and situations.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”
Very few poems get to the philosophical crux of bold decision making in a such a succinct fashion. I call this the Frostian Dilemma.
From what to wear today to making the choice to skip breakfast to drive or take the train to taking the high paying job out of town to returning the DVD today or pay the late fee tomorrow we are confronted with decisions every waking moment of life.
Thankfully over 80% of these decisions are not life and death issues. And the 20% that matter, are the ones that we tend to sit on the fence on. And sit on the fence we do. From postponing the decision making, to ignoring the consequences of not deciding, to sidestepping the issue we have any number of novel ways in which we delay the inevitable. Like one of the authors would say ‘when faced with two equally tough choices, most people choose the third choice: to not choose’. How true!
Neuroscience has reasons why the human race has learnt to delay decision making. Truth be told, the number of such decisions, where neuroscience has to step in and rule on the matter are few and far between. Most are acquired along the way formed out of habits that we cultivated and nurtured over time.
Three common reasons why we as a race have chosen to compete for the indecision title-
- We always wait to make the right decision. Either because of failures or consequences of bad judgements, we are programmed to be cautious of decision making and are always aiming to make the right decision. A variation of this is the ‘perfection mindset’ which calls for the decision maker to gather every possibility there is before deciding on the issue. Also called ‘analysis paralysis’, we tend to overanalyze problems and situations to the point of avoiding or postponing the decision making.
- No one wants to be ridiculed for a bad decision. The fear of being mocked or ridiculed at is a good enough reason why we delay decision making. A garden variety variation of this behavior is trying to please more than one person at the same time. The competing interests between the individual we are trying to please and us is a good enough reason why we want to delay the inevitable.
- It simply feels safe to not having to decide. Irrespective of the consequences or sometimes in spite of it, we feel safe in avoiding the moment of decision making delighting in the temporary freedom that only inaction can provide. Confronted with multiple choices we simply get mentally stunned and choose the middle ground of inaction. Whether it is two normal, otherwise positive sides or the more scary negative ones avoiding decision making certainly has a zone in our brain that gets rewarded handsomely at the very moment.
French philosopher Jean Buridan demonstrates a paradox in philosophy now referred to as the Buridan’s Ass. “It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other….. A common variant of the paradox substitutes two identical piles of hay for the hay and water; the ass, unable to choose between the two, dies of hunger”. (Thank you Wikipedia).
The day to day translation of Buridan’s ass is the worst case scenario when we choose neither of two equally attractive choices in front of us.