Saturday 11 July 2015

The 8-Step Ancient Greek Guide to Successful Decision-Making

Don’t know whether to leave your Significant Other? Buy a sports car? Eat cake? Since there are arbitrary factors at play which you can’t control—that is, luck—you can never guarantee that you will take the correct decision. But you can guarantee that you prepare for the decision-taking in the manner which maximises your chances of success.

The Greeks thought long and hard about this, especially after the Athenian democracy put important decisions in the hands of the whole citizenry. By the time Aristotle explained in his Ethics the best way to work out how to act—to deliberate, take decisions—the ancient Greek poets, dramatists, historians and orators had developed eight rules for the Competent Deliberator. Often the rules are demonstrated through negative examples in tragedy, when hopelessly incompetent deliberators wreck their families and cities by taking dire decisions. In my utopia every teenager would be trained in the rules at school:
Creon in Sophocles' Antigone takes stupid decisions

1)  Don’t deliberate in a hurry. Speed and impulsiveness have no place in deliberation. You may want to leave your spouse after a row, but things often look very different next week.

2) Verify ALL information. A correct decision can’t result from incorrect knowledge. A rumour that your spouse is having an affair is someone’s opinion, not a fact.

3)   Consult ALL parties who will be affected by the decision. It is not just you and your spouse who will be affected if you split. So will your families, friends, colleagues, neighbours.

4) Consult a disinterested expert advisor. This means someone with experience of the type of situation you are in but who stands to gain or lose nothing whatsoever regardless of your decision. Your best friend is NEVER disinterested.

 5) Examine all known precedents. What happens to humans when relationships break up? What happens to you when you are traumatised? How does your spouse behave under stress?

 6) Calibrate the likelihood of different outcomes and prepare for them all. Are you 50% sure that your spouse will behave like a decent human if you leave them and not hit you/rip you off/abduct your children? 70%? 99%? What will you do if any of the consequences you calculate to be probable actually happens?

 7) Factor in all random possibilities you can envisage. What unanticipated events might drastically affect how events proceed? What if you lose your job tomorrow? Find out you are pregnant? Become too ill to look after dependants? Would such events affect the success or failure of the action you are deciding upon?

  8) Don’t drink and deliberate. Drunken decisions are likely to be impulsive.

So there it is. I have omitted as sexist rule no. 9, which is ‘women and deliberation don’t mix’. I have also left out the deliberative procedure which Herodotus attributes to the Persians, even though I often practise it myself. 

When they had an important decision to make, such as whether to go to war, the Persians took the same vote twice, first after drinking together, and again after sobering up the next morning. Only when the two votes coincided—heart and head in harmony—did they act.

But even the Persian method is more effective if you have first followed the eight-step programme. It really works. Let’s all become as Competent Deliberators as Aristotle!

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