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Ruth Chang: How to Make Hard Choices

Ruth Chang: How to Make Hard Choices

Ruth Chang is a philosopher at Rutgers University with an interesting background. After graduating with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and dipping her toe into the legal world, she went off to Oxford University to study philosophy. Her work focuses on how we make the decisions that shape our lives.

In her recent TED talk (video below), she talks about how we make hard choices and in the process offers a framework for making decisions consistent with who we truly are.

How to Make Hard Choices

What makes a hard choice hard is the way alternatives relate.

In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall. You agonize over whether to stay in your current job in the city or uproot your life for more challenging work in the country because staying is better in some ways, moving is better in others, and neither is better than the other overall. We shouldn’t think that all hard choices are big. Let’s say you’re deciding what to have for breakfast. You could have high fiber bran cereal or a chocolate donut. Suppose what matters in the choice is tastiness and healthfulness. The cereal is better for you, the donut tastes way better, but neither is better than the other overall, a hard choice. Realizing that small choices can also be hard may make big hard choices seem less intractable. After all, we manage to figure out what to have for breakfast, so maybe we can figure out whether to stay in the city or uproot for the new job in the country.

In hard choices we tend to prefer the safest option.

… I can tell you that fear of the unknown, while a common motivational default in dealing with hard choices, rests on a misconception of them. It’s a mistake to think that in hard choices, one alternative really is better than the other, but we’re too stupid to know which, and since we don’t know which, we might as well take the least risky option. Even taking two alternatives side by side with full information, a choice can still be hard. Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they’re hard because there is no best option.

Now, if there’s no best option, if the scales don’t tip in favor of one alternative over another, then surely the alternatives must be equally good, so maybe the right thing to say in hard choices is that they’re between equally good options. That can’t be right. If alternatives are equally good, you should just flip a coin between them, and it seems a mistake to think, here’s how you should decide between careers, places to live, people to marry: Flip a coin. There’s another reason for thinking that hard choices aren’t choices between equally good options.

Our search for physics like exactitude and our desire to quantify everything into scientific thinking combine to lead us astray.

We unwittingly assume that values like justice, beauty, kindness, are akin to scientific quantities, like length, mass and weight. Take any comparative question not involving value, such as which of two suitcases is heavier? There are only three possibilities. The weight of one is greater, lesser or equal to the weight of the other. Properties like weight can be represented by real numbers — one, two, three and so on — and there are only three possible comparisons between any two real numbers. One number is greater, lesser, or equal to the other. Not so with values. As post-Enlightenment creatures, we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can’t.

Another way to see things is that they are in the same ball-park. This is what happens in hard choices, the alternatives are “on a par.”

When alternatives are on a par, it may matter very much which you choose, but one alternative isn’t better than the other. Rather, the alternatives are in the same neighborhood of value, in the same league of value, while at the same time being very different in kind of value. That’s why the choice is hard.

From the Independent on Sunday, Feb 19, 1995
From the Independent on Sunday, Feb 19, 1995

We create reasons.

Understanding hard choices in this way uncovers something about ourselves we didn’t know. Each of us has the power to create reasons. Imagine a world in which every choice you face is an easy choice, that is, there’s always a best alternative. If there’s a best alternative, then that’s the one you should choose, because part of being rational is doing the better thing rather than the worse thing, choosing what you have most reason to choose. … A world full of only easy choices would enslave us to reasons. … (However) when alternatives are on a par, the reasons given to us, the ones that determine whether we’re making a mistake, are silent as to what to do. It’s here, in the space of hard choices, that we get to exercise our normative power, the power to create reasons for yourself …

When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. … This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.

When you face hard choices you need to look inside yourself.

… Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.

If you don’t exercise your normative powers you become a drifter.

Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives. They let mechanisms of reward and punishment — pats on the head, fear, the easiness of an option — to determine what they do. So the lesson of hard choices reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person.

Hard choices are part of what makes us human.

Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.

Here is Ruth’s full TED talk: