Río Grande: judgment calls

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In a par­tic­u­larly bad re­cent bout of anx­iety, I learned what seemed to me to be a new and ex­cit­ing men­tal move, which I named ‘mak­ing a judg­ment call’. If you had asked me pre­vi­ously whether I made judg­ment calls, I would have said ‘yes’ how­ever, so de­scribing what I am talk­ing about here is per­haps some­what sub­tle.

When I have to de­cide about some­thing and the rele­vant is­sues are not cer­tain, I think I have usu­ally waited for the world to re­solve enough un­cer­tainty to make the de­ci­sion clear. For in­stance, for it to be­come clear that the food is safe to eat or suffi­ciently likely to be un­safe that it should be thrown out. I mean, I thought and col­lected ev­i­dence, but the pro­ce­dure was to go through these pro­ce­dures un­til the an­swer was re­turned. The thing I would have called ‘mak­ing a judg­ment call’ was some­thing like ‘think un­til it be­comes clear that the food is safe’ (then ‘the food is safe’ is your judg­ment) or per­haps ‘think un­til it is clear at a higher level that more think­ing isn’t worth­while’. You make a judg­ment by be­com­ing con­fi­dent in the ex­pected value calcu­la­tion. It isn’t nec­es­sar­ily an ex­plicit calcu­la­tion, but you feel con­fi­dent enough that one side is right.

But you can also just stop be­fore any­thing is clear. Be­fore you even have a clear as­sess­ment of the rele­vant un­cer­tain­ties and ex­pected val­ues, or which heuris­tics are solidly ap­pli­ca­ble in this case. In­stead of wait­ing un­til the best way to act re­veals it­self to you, you can make a de­ci­sion. You can just say ‘nah, the food is fine, I judged it so’.

Some­thing like that felt like a men­tal mo­tion that I didn’t know that I could do. A bit like learn­ing to wig­gle your ears, when you didn’t know where the mus­cles were. A friend asked me what this men­tal mo­tion felt like. I can’t re­mem­ber what I said, but now I’d say it has a sense of own­er­ship and mine­ness. I sup­pose be­cause what was more a fea­ture of the cir­cum­stance has been re­placed by my own will.

Surely I have always of­ten done some­thing like this in other kinds of cases, e.g. when I’m de­cid­ing where to put the tomato on my lunch plate I don’t do any kind of im­plicit EV calcu­la­tion that I’m aware of. But the men­tal mo­tion there feels differ­ent—the situ­a­tion doesn’t pre­sent it­self as a choice in the same way per­haps. I think I just fol­low some feel­ing of what is right. Which seems like a differ­ent in­ter­est­ing av­enue of de­ci­sion mak­ing ex­plo­ra­tion, but I shan’t go into it here.

I think my abil­ity to do this comes and goes, and I might be wrong that it is a dis­tinct thing, or a thing I hadn’t done much be­fore. I don’t have a de­tailed rec­ol­lec­tion of my men­tal pro­cesses in gen­eral. But this is what it seemed like to me.

This schema of there be­ing some pas­sive pro­cess which can be re­placed with an ac­tive de­ci­sion—and of be­ing able to make a de­ci­sion where you didn’t know you could—re­minds me a bit of the kind of mis­take where you jump to try­ing to get things (or as­sum­ing that you are try­ing to get things) be­cause you feel de­sire for them. Or the one where you jump to think­ing that you be­lieve a thing, be­cause it is dis­played in your head some­times. But ac­tu­ally you can choose what to pur­sue, and what to be­lieve, and it’s way bet­ter. Well, you can also choose what de­ci­sions to make.

Per­haps in gen­eral, you can ob­serve who you are or you can choose who you are. (Or, ei­ther way you are choos­ing, but maybe choos­ing badly be­cause you haven’t no­ticed that you have a choice). And these aren’t differ­ent ways of see­ing the world, they are differ­ent sets of pro­cesses you can run.