answer the question

November 11, 2021

I’ve been frustrated lately by how others make my decision-making more difficult than it needs to be.

To make many of my decisions, I need to know more than I already know. I need more information. I suspect we all do, whether we admit it or not, but for now I’ll just speak for myself.

A lot of the information I need is often held by people around me, either because they are experts in the area in which I need to decide, or know things I don’t know, or would be impacted by the outcome of my decisions.

But when I ask those people for the information I need, information they have and could very easily share, I don’t get it. Instead, they give me what amounts to advice. I want facts, but they give me their opinion. I want to make my own informed decision, but they tell me what decision they think I should make.

They don't answer my question, and that agitates me.

I don’t think they do this on purpose, but it’s nonetheless frustrating. Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. (This is totally made up, to protect the innocent.)

Evi has finally saved up enough money to start investing, but she’s never invested before, and she doesn’t know where to start. So, she asks her friend Adam, who’s been an avid investor for years, to explain the difference between stocks and mutual funds. She wants to learn more before making a decision about what to invest in. He responds by saying, “You should totally invest in a mutual fund, and you should probably put some money into crypto, too.”

Evi comes away from that conversation having no idea what a mutual fund is or how it differs from a stock, even though Adam could have easily told her. And she has no idea what the pros and cons of investing in crypto were, or why she should even care, even though Adam may have given her some insight. She's no better equipped to make a choice than she was before she talked to Adam, because what Adam gave her was his recommendation – which he incidentally made without having any of his own essential information, like what her financial goals were, how much she had available to invest, or any other data that’s key when making investment choices.

Experiences like this are frustrating to me. They’re frustrating because I, like Evi, prefer to make own my decisions. Not that this is the only way to go; it’s just what I prefer.

I understand why people prefer to outsource their decision-making, to have others make their choices for them. Decision-making can be hard, and when the stakes are high, it can be even harder. Anticipated regret is a real thing, as is anticipated blame. No one wants to make the wrong choice and suffer the negative consequences of that. And no one wants to be blamed for bringing about such negative consequences. Allowing others to choose for you feels safer.

I also understand why people would rather share advice than information. When we care about others, we want to see their lives going in a particular direction. We feel invested. We want our best friend to dump the guy who we don’t think is good for them. We want our kid to take that job that seems like a great opportunity. And so on.

But unless I ask for advice, I don’t want it. Don't get me wrong - I'm afraid of making the wrong choices and living with regret, and sometimes I just want to go along with what others tell me to do, for the sake of belonging, to preserve social harmony. But I also believe that no one else can make the right choices for me, at least not as well as I can make them for myself. Others may have information I need, but they don’t hold all the information that’s relevant.

Besides, research on decision-making suggests that we assess risk differently when we’re making decisions for others rather than for ourselves. We can try to put ourselves in other people's shoes, but we can’t quite ever really get there. So, when I ask for information, information is precisely what I want.

If you want to make the best decisions, information, and not advice, is probably what you should ask for. If someone in your life asks you for information to make the right choice, then information, and not advice, is probably what you should give them.

But given that we’re all human, things probably won’t always go this way. I figure that, as long as we seek facts over opinion, and prioritize learning over worrying, we should be on the right track. We should get closer to maximizing our chances of making the right decisions. And, usually, improving our chances is the most we can do.

That is all.


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