Maybe it’s comforting to know that there isn’t a rational route to the right decision...spend less time trying to figure out the best path to get to where we want to go and spend more time thinking about where we want to go in the first place.
Russ Roberts in the Durango Herald and The New York Times: In 1838, Charles Darwin faced a problem. Nearing his 30th birthday, he was trying to decide whether to marry — with the likelihood that children would be part of the package. To help make his decision, Darwin made a list of the expected pluses and minuses of marrying. On the left-hand side he tried to imagine what it would be like to be married (“constant companion,” “object to be beloved & played with — better than a dog anyhow”). On the right-hand side he tried to imagine what it would be like not to marry (“not forced to visit relatives & to bend in every trifle”).
Darwin was struggling with what I call a wild problem — a fork in the road of life where knowing which path is the right one isn’t obvious, where the day-to-day pleasure and pain from choosing one path over another are ultimately hidden from us and where those day-to-day pleasures and pains don’t fully capture what’s at stake.
There might be a mere handful of such decisions like this that we face. Often there is little evidence to guide us, and what little evidence is available can mislead us.
How should we proceed, then, especially if we want to make a rational decision?
I was trained as an economist. We were taught that economics is the guide to making rational choices. Everything has a price; everything involves giving up something to have something else. But when it comes to the big decisions of life, those principles can lead us astray.
Take Darwin’s list. At first glance, making a list of pluses and minuses seems like a rational approach for dealing with any problem, wild or tame. The technique is probably as old as Eve in the garden facing the wild problem of whether to eat that fruit. (Minuses: It will annoy the Head Gardener, ignorance is bliss, gaining knowledge may come with unexpected downsides. Pluses: Snake seems like a pleasant fellow, forbidden fruit is sweetest, and so on.) But the cost-benefit list that Darwin constructed is less helpful than it might appear.
Darwin managed to come up with more minuses than pluses if he married. Though he didn’t write it down explicitly, it’s pretty clear what he considered the biggest minus: If he married, he’d have less time for his scientific research and be less productive.
To Darwin, marriage was overwhelmingly about what he would give up. With many wild problems, the downside is easily imagined, while the upside is veiled from us.
Maybe it’s comforting to know that there isn’t a rational route to the right decision.
Most of Darwin’s list seems to point him toward a life of staying single. Yet he married his cousin Emma Wedgwood. Together they had 10 children; seven survived to adulthood. And Darwin became one of the greatest scientists of all time.
Human beings want purpose. We want meaning. We want to belong to something larger than ourselves. The decisions we make in the face of wild problems don’t just lead to good days and bad days. They define us.
Darwin’s decision looks irrational only until we remember that the future is veiled from us.
Learn from Darwin. Spend less time trying to figure out the best path to get to where we want to go and spend more time thinking about where we want to go in the first place.
Russ Roberts is the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and is the author of “Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us,” from which this essay is adapted.