Human nature is very good at making bad decisions. We waste tons of time and money by deciding in ways that fail to achieve intended results. We misjudge situations at every scale of endeavor from individuals making personal decisions to international agencies making global policy decisions. However, we make bad decisions for good reasons that prevent us from spending our time and money more wisely.
In The Social Animal, David Brooks seeks to correct the pattern of chronic policy failures by defining a more complex view of human nature. By accounting for our unconscious inclinations and conduct, he hopes to avoid the overly-simplistic models which assume we are rational decision makers. Brooks looks to the burgeoning fields of behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience for insights on how to define human nature more complexly.
I have a problem with all the experiments that uncover our irrational biases that have become the basis for behavioral economics. The subjects of those experiments are put in situations for making snap judgements. There is no opportunity to say to the experimenter: "I'll get back to you on that" or "I'll let you know after I sleep on it". The experiments are finding how we make decisions when we're afraid of looming deadlines, missing opportunities, repeating past mistakes or violating cultural norms. They show us we are not rational when we are under pressure, in danger or worried about outcomes. They reveal what happens when we're set up to work against our unconscious. We have very good reasons for making bad decisions.
There are several passages in The Social Animal where we're shown how to make decisions working with our unconscious. In the field of creativity, this process is called "incubation". We first research the limits of what we can know. We then realize what we don't know and let go of trying to know the unknowable. Next we let go of working on the decision while it cooks on a back burner. Some time later, we'll get a clear sense of the right decision to make. Our unconscious takes into account an unfathomable breadth and depth of considerations to deliver the "right action, right timing and right proportion". Good decisions emerge from the complex context of our knowns and unknowns. Good decisions are contextual, not isolated things.
Thus I see the process of making bad decisions as loops. We make decisions that result in policy failures when we're afraid of producing more policy failures. We decide to waste our time and money when we're afraid of making a bad decision. We get in big trouble when we're in a big hurry to finalize a decision. This non-linear view dismisses the dichotomies of rational/irrational decision-making and conscious/unconscious decision-makers. We can be conscious of our rational limitations and our unconscious resources for making wise decisions. We can be accept how the right decision is unconscious and accessible to the minds which are trusting in those resources, prepared to receive decisions and clear of fears which cycle into bad decisions.