Making decisions is harder now than ever before. Fact. Time for an online decision-making course…
While the possibility of choice rests in our favour, with information fizzing at our fingertips and opening up never ending avenues, it can also be very intimidating. Especially if you’re a person who changes their mind at least three times when ordering a sandwich.
Comparison websites may have alleviated a little of the workload from our holiday, insurance and grocery shopping. But with our gateway to information so loud and vast, it takes far longer to hush the tiny voice in your head that tells you that you might have achieved a better outcome if you just dug that little deeper.
Making decisions in the real world, whether it’s as part of your day-to-day (like what to put in your cereal bowl), within work-based projects, or simply digesting all the information that we come across and acting on it – all decisions we make tend to reflect the same theory: a pursuit of the best overall outcome.
On hearing about FutureLearn – an online learning platform that hosts six-week long courses, I took the plunge and signed up to their programme of ‘Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World’ to try to make more sense of how to make informed choices that really count.
With week one’s class under my belt, here’s a brief summary (with my own spin) of what I discovered:
The difference between complex and complicated
1,000 piece puzzles are complicated.
The immune system is complex.
Cities are complex.
The inner workings of an iPhone are complicated.
The brain you’re using to look at your iPhone is complex.
Easy, hmm. We often mistake complex systems for complicated ones. The difference is pretty massive. Complicated systems refer to one that has no full central control. Complex systems like that of an ant colony (apparently the queen doesn’t count), or city, or a country’s economy – they all have extraneous parts or components working together, that respond to their environment and to the outside world. This grounding distinction is really important when you’re considering how to make educated decisions.
The difference between risk and uncertainty
I’ve also leant that risk is always calculated. Sure, it might be ruddy complicated, but with a risk you are always aware of all of the multiple outcomes, however narrow they might be. Think of a coin toss. You always know what to expect – either heads or tails. The stickler is, you can never know for certain whether it will land in your favour.
This is mitigated risk, and it’s a skill that advanced gamblers have long used to weigh up the likelihood of winning it big – and something that economists have borrowed from, applying their reasoning as a powerful tool for organising, interpreting and applying information to making assumptions on the future.
Uncertainty is a fundamental of human existence. Due to the amount of extraneous environmental, societal, scientific variables we’re bumbling about in, such as the weather or cultural emergences like loom bands (who could have predicted that) – it makes sense that we can never correctly predict the future with any sense of complete certainty. Sure, we can plot out the patterns that emerge and take educated guesses, but predicting the future, non.
‘Black Swan Theory’
If remember nothing more from today’s deep well of academia, it’s going to be ‘Black Swan Theory’. A black swan is essentially a highly unlikely occurrence – it lies well beyond the realm of regular expectations. Just like you wouldn’t normally find a black swan gliding past you in the park’s pond, we do know that it can happen.
The occurrence of the a black swan carries with it an extreme impact. An example of this would be the financial crisis of 2008 which dumbfounded many economists who just didn’t see it coming.
Good black swans would include the rise of the Internet, which certainly wasn’t accurately predicted in science/speculative fiction even as late as the 1980s. The rise of Adolf Hitler and others like him, the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Challenger space shuttle disaster are all examples of archetypal bad black swans.
In spite of its maverick status, human nature leads us to dream up a whole load of explanations for a black swan’s occurrence after it happens – making it explainable and therefore a new predictability. Like a pure chocolate KitKat (extremely rare, but there have been sightings).
Classes on FutureLearn are completely free and you can try them out in your own time, if you don’t have the time one week to keep up. The hardest decision is knowing which one to take on. I’ve unwittingly signed up to another two – now that’s some questionable decision making. Wish me luck.
Illustration by Katie Edwards.