Psychology of Choice

Psychology of Choice. Psychology Fanatic article header image
Psychology of Choice

Which way do I go, which way do I go? Life pushes us in multiple directions; opportunities, relationships, investments beg for our limited stash of resources. We can’t do everything; we must make choices. Unfortunately, wisdom requires complex decisions, more than the blatant right over the wrong, but choices between different alternatives. Most decisions have both positive and negative characteristics. Without a crystal ball, we must rely on wisdom to choose. We make a choice and begin to follow one path over the other. The psychology of choice examines the underlying factors that contribute to this choice.

We never will know how paths not chosen would have materialized, leaving options behind may leave us queasy, but we can’t choose them all. Wondering and playing out scenarios of choices that were not taken is referred to as counterfactual thinking. This practice does us little good. Uncertainty stirs anxiety, increasing the difficulty of choosing. We worry about missing out on unchosen paths, so we postpone, never committing.

​Opportunities usually demand more than a curious pondering, without commitment, the moment passes and the opportunity fades, eliminating the need to choose. We lose prospective partners, employments and experiences with indecision. By failing to choose, we submit to fate, drifting down the path beckoning the loudest. Our magnificent brain prioritizes and propels us forward, often in the right direction; but not always.

​We instinctively know many things, gathering wisdom through experience, responding appropriately without much thought. Conscious thought, at times, even interferes. Something feels right; and only later do we discover the genius of the intuition.

“I can control my destiny, but not my fate. Destiny means there are opportunities to turn right or left, but fate is a one-way street. I believe we all have the choice as to whether we fulfil our destiny, but our fate is sealed.”

~​Paulo Coelho

Intuition and Choice

However, intuition is not always the answer. Life is infinitely more complex. The blinding intuitions driven by unbridled passions need to be curbed, guided and sometimes resisted. With maturity, we recognize many dangers hidden in the impulses. The flourishing person must balance her intuiting inner pulls with a complimentary cerebral examination. We call this using our wise mind.

For some, volatile pasts taint their view and sour their reactions; the world appears dangerous—often for good reasons. New relationships (that are not dangerous) still spark fear; the past stubbornly bleeding into the present. The immediate intuitive reaction might be to run or construct protective walls, limiting experience. Others, confused by the past, recklessly abandon caution and continue to engage in stupidity, damaging futures that could have been improved.

Through a careful examination of our lives, we discover many dangerous impulses. We instinctively reach for our phone when it beeps, even if driving on a congested freeway—a dangerous impulsive reaction. The unviewed or unanswered text message continually yanks at our attention until we yield. The impulse is wrong. Grabbing the wine bottle every time we are frustrated or worried is a dangerous impulse with lasting impact. The impulse is wrong.

“For some, volatile pasts taint their view and sour their reactions; the world appears dangerous—often for good reasons.”

~T. Franklin Murphy

Choice and Bias

Our lives play out in a complex bundle of instinctive reactions, intuitions that we justify with faulty logic, never uncovering the hidden motivations. We shouldn’t over worry our predicament; history has shown that despite all the imperfections of thought, our brains serve the species well. Behind the psychology of choice is the foundational knowledge that we have survived on this planet for over three hundred thousand years. We must be making a few right decisions.

The belief of a grand possession of an infallible compass appeals to our needs for security. An objective examination of personal experience reveals that some intuitions reward handsomely while others muck up our lives, leading down disastrous dusty roads. Even unbiased, uneducated choices are occasionally right—the broken clock is spot on twice a day. We must concede that either our ability to distinguish between righteous impulses and physical temptations is lacking, or the touted perfect guidance system isn’t quite perfect. I tend to believe the latter.

Choice and Unpredictability 

We stumble through an unpredictable world; yet we can make enough sense of the chaos, creating connections of cause and effect, to formulate plans, spark reactions, and encourage thoughtful investigations. We make errors in the process, drawing wrong conclusions but respond with enough right choices to survive and for many to even flourish.

Starting with simple instincts, we develop expertise in living by learning from the joys and the pains, absorbing lessons from parents and society, promoting refined skills that improve management of our biological, psychological, and sociological impulses.

Our individual constellation of empathy, compassion, security, self-confidence, successes, failures, knowledge, experiences, beliefs, hope, and fears (to name a few) all factor into impulses and decisions. However, as complicated as this sounds, in the end, we still make the choice. William Glasser wrote that “we are much more in control of our lives than we realize” (2010). So, the psychology of choice confuses everything with all the complexity. However, its up to us to make the best of the choices we realize.

​Over-simplified judgments of good and evil overlook the complex and often hidden ingredients of choice. There’s no simple path to skirt around and dodge the complexity. True change requires more than a single choice but by inspecting the underlying building blocks that motivates our impulses and subsequent choices.

The work of change is slow and tedious; but lives can transform. We can experience more richness, happiness and intimacy. We are not condemned to follow tedious and destructive trajectories. Quietly and patiently, we move forward in gratitude, with improved choices and tempered impulses. New blessings grace our lives, reassuring with a gentle peace, and testifying to our hearts that all is well, we are on the correct path.

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Glasser, William (2010). Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. HarperCollins e-books

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