Decisions by the numbers or by the gut?


We all make decisions every day. And most of us like to think that our decisions are based on adequate data. We consider going to college or grad school. Which school has the best degree, best profs? Which will give be the best options post graduation? We consider getting married. Will ____ be a good spouse? We consider buying a car. Should I buy a Toyota because their history of longevity and safety are well documented or do I skip them because of the gas pedal situation? We consider which counselor to use for our problems. Do I choose a christian or someone who is board certified (I know, I know, they can be both)?

We make decisions all the time but they are NEVER based on enough data. This is where faith or our gut is involved. For example, I didn’t know my wife would be the best wife to have. Well, I’ll tell you I did but I didn’t.

What I am aware of is how we have so much more data available to us these days to make our decisions. At times, the data can be helpful but it can also deceive us into thinking that we have more control over the outcome.

Consider these counseling related examples:

1. Home Sleep study devices. I saw an ad for a radio alarm clock sized device that records your time to sleep, your REM time, your number of awakenings and your wake point. Assuming the device works, you can really track your sleep in a much more accurate way (rather than just going by how it felt). There might be some benefit to this, especially if it helped you be more consistent in your bedtime rituals. But, data doesn’t stop anxiety nor does it alter sleep apnea.

2. Scales. I have a new scale at home that gives me all sorts of data. So, I weigh myself more frequently just to see what changes. Of course, it has yet to change my eating habits nor really tell me much that I didn’t already know.

3. Pop Psych treatments. I suppose some will challenge me here on this category. But there are a number of popular forms of treatments or assessments out there that purport to pinpoint your problem, remove your problem, or illustrate the healing you just received. Each of these forms of treatment have stories, anecdotes, even statistical data. But few have been researched in controlled studies. So, the data may be accurate and yet meaningless to you at the same time. These interventions may well be useful but often the promise outstrips what is really known at the present time.

I might sound like I’m down on data. I’m not at all. We have some wonderful tools now to track information. Data can give us direction. But, in the end, we have to decide and there are other kinds of “data” that we use to make these decisions: feelings, recent experiences (our own or others), first reactions, amount of energy, hope, etc. Let us not deceive ourselves that we truly live by the numbers.

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Filed under Cognitive biases, Psychology, Uncategorized

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