TED Conversations

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay


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What leads us to decide?

We need to take decisions in life almost every day. In work or outside of it, life takes us on crossroads where decisions are necessary, without which we cannot move on. It is in these situations we take decisions and we believe that the decisions are independently taken, weighing pros and cons and utilizing our best judgments.

That may not be the case. Our decisions may not be as individualistic as we normally think. Our judgments may not be the best under the circumstances. We are often influenced by authority that comes from an expert or an institution or even a belief system but all of which, either solely or in combination are relied on as of authority. Yale University Psychologist Stanley Milgram, in 1963 published his research paper which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. They went on to impart lethal doses of electricity (as they believed to do) to some other participants just because they were deciding under authority. There are interesting videos available in Youtube which you can check.

We can project this authority beyond science. Religion is one. Market in another. Media is yet another. From small to profound we rely on authority almost obsessively for making decisions and yet think that our decisions are free and independent. If we need a reference for making decision, we should be seeking help from authenticity and not authority and they are different. Authority is beyond question, it regulates where as authenticity is free to be tested and it creates trust.

What leads us to decide – authority or authenticity?


Closing Statement from Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

It seems that we take help of both authority and authenticity to decide things. It may not even be an either/or choice as the question seeks to see decision making as. At times we can find authority and authenticity merging and at other times, at the very fringes of human choice the decision making may be so spontaneous that our sub-conscious plays a vital role. Moreover, our decision making process works over a range of our faculty, our brain conserves resources/neuronic energy while decision making.

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    Apr 7 2013: I think, decisions are based on beliefs. You wouldn't be sitting if you didn't believe that the chair would support your weight.

    Why we believe is a good question. Sometimes, we believe because we hear something from an authority, sometimes we believe because of our own experience or evidence (authenticity), sometimes we believe something to achieve a goal (e.g. if we want to sell a product, we must believe that it is useful to someone even if we personally don't use it).

    There is a variety of reasons to believe with a good overview given here
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      Apr 7 2013: Thanks for the link Arkady. If one sees it along the belief - thought - feeling - action chain, decisions are based on beliefs. I think my questions starts a little bit down the line, that is, from where that belief is supplied, authority or authenticity. Some commenters maintain, and my dear friend Colleen seems to be one of them, that it can be both or a mixture of both. Well of course it can be so. But even then is that mixture of equal portions of authority and authenticity?
      I have argued that authority does not allow any question or examination of it's righteousness. Authenticity comes from a personal feeling of righteousness which is open to examination and question. Our social systems appear to me to be leaning towards authority and authenticity is not held as of equal importance.
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        Apr 7 2013: Pabitra,
        You write..."Some commenters maintain, and my dear friend Colleen seems to be one of them, that it can be both or a mixture of both. Well of course it can be so. But even then is that mixture of equal portions of authority and authenticity?"

        It depends on the situation, and the decision in question...don't you think?
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          Apr 7 2013: Yes. As in many questions here, the context needs to be defined.
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          Apr 7 2013: I think I have tried to provide the context of the situations. In life, we are presented with choices and we decide one choice discarding others. So it is obvious that our decisions are dependent on the situation.
          I am concerned about the huge preponderance of decisions made under the influence of authority rather than relying on authenticity by which I mean a judgement based on our personal examination of the choices critically.
          I find it hard to accept that the large number of decisions that we make on a daily basis starting from trivial to profound are taken by us after evaluating all available options. I also find it difficult to trust authorities, as experiments show they can make us act like fools at times.
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        Apr 7 2013: Pabitra,
        I agree that we have choices, and decisions are dependent on situations.

        I don't have difficultly trusting most authority/authorities, nor do I think/feel/believe they can "make us act like fools".

        I have choices regarding how I act and react in every situation. Sorry, I cannot understand your concerns as you present them. You seem to want to seperate authority and authenticity, and I perceive them to often be intertwined. It feels like you want to go in circles with this.
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        Apr 8 2013: Pabitra,

        You may be interested to read the famous essay by Willam Clifford followed by William James and others here: http://ajburger.homestead.com/files/book.htm

        Clifford takes your thesis to extreme - he makes an absolute moral rule:
        " it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

        Ironically, he immediately makes 2 exceptions to his "absolute" rule:
        1. "We may believe what goes beyond our experience, only when it is inferred from that experience by the assumption that what we do not know is like what we know."
        2. "We may believe the statement of another person, when there is reasonable ground for supposing that he knows the matter of which he speaks, and that he is speaking the truth so far as he knows it."

        As you see, we HAVE to rely on other people's experience simply because our own experience is always limited. Clifford is the strictest evidentialist I know and even he acknowledges it. If you have trouble relying on other people's opinions, you will have trouble with education.

        There are obvious problems with Clifford's position. 1. How do we justify the assumption that what we don't know is like what we know? 2. How do we make the choice to trust that the other person is knowledgeable and honest? The chain of justifications, authentications, and verifications, has to end somewhere. It's a known problem in computer security.

        Why do you make such a dilemma? I always consider opinions of experts simply as another factor to weigh into my own judgment. When several authorities have the same opinion, it is often considered as an evidence of authenticity. Often, it makes sense to doubt our own perceptions - there is always a possibility that we missed an important detail or misunderstood things. So, checking with other people's opinions is often a wise thing to do.
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          Apr 9 2013: Thank you Arkady for the information about the book, I shall try to get it and read.
          Whenever you consider opinions of experts simply as another factor to weigh into your own judgment, you are actually seeking authenticity. I agree that the chain of justifications, authentications, and verifications, has to end somewhere, but under the influence of authority the chain does not even start.
          When I was in university, I started the idea of student's feedback on teachers' performance. I tried to say that students must compare and test teachers' performances and rate them. The Vice Chancellor called me up in his chamber and told me that we just cannot rate some of the fabled professors as boring, not effective and incomprehensible. He said their reputation and the university's position are beyond refute. I think that's an example of authority. When a country enlists youths for military services in connection with wars with faraway countries and hunts them down in case of their dropping out, I think that is an example of authority.
          I head a team of very talented engineers and scientists to work in a very complex field of science/technology. It is my experience that I can only have the best of their output when they are free to challenge my experience, decisions and ideas.
          I hope you will agree that I am sounding my ideas with you all here, am I not? I am essentially looking for authenticity.
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        Apr 9 2013: You have a valid point. I also favor using my own judgment rather than relying on opinion of an authority to make decisions for me. I have noticed that as I got into habit of doing that, more and more people have started to seek my opinion for making their decisions (my wife is an exception).

        But your question is "what leads us to decide - authority or authenticity?", and the answer is, clearly, "both". Is it wrong or right to use one or the other to make decisions? I don't know. I just know that both ways are used by a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations. In some cases, it's beneficial to obey authority without question, in some - not. For example, in a combat situation, there is no time to discuss decisions. Troops have to move and act as one. Perhaps, there is a reason for this. I don't like it. You don't like it. This is why we are not in the military. But a lot of people, actually, like when decisions are made for them. Making our own decisions is one of the most stressful activities I know. Not to mention the moral weight of responsibility which makes many people uncomfortable.

        In academic situation, an authority that feels uncomfortable to be questioned is a phony.
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          Apr 9 2013: The answer for me too Arkady, is clearly both authority and authenticity. With my belief and practice of gathering AS MUCH information as possible for decision making, I would not disregard any source in favor of a different source. Considering ALL information provides a better foundation for decision making, which leads to more confidence and contentment with our decision, and less regret.

          I also notice that people seek my opinion, and I suspect the reason for that is because I encourage THEM to seek as much relevant, appropriate, available information as possible before making a decision. I will walk through the process with others, and I very rarely, if ever give advice. I share my stories, experiences, outcomes based on certain choices and decisions, and I firmly believe that the BEST decisions are made by considering all information, so that is what I encourage in myself and others.

          I agree Arkady that some folks prefer letting others make decisions for them, and that relieves them of responsibility, which may, at times, be uncomfortable. The thing is....with the possible discomfort of responsibility, comes the comfort, pleasure and contentment of knowing we, as individuals, can orchestrate our lives. Once we realize this, there may not be discomfort in decision-making.....that is what I experience:>)

          I also feel that questioning is a great resource, and I am aware that some folks are uncomfortable with questions. I think some folks perceive questions as a challenge to their belief system, so it may be uncomfortable to them. In my perception, it is another way to get information:>)
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          Apr 19 2013: If I may jump in; There is another defintion of authority and that is; an authority, one who is an expert. I must admit that I accept the words of people who know what they teach, as authenticity. I realise I might make a mistake in doing this, but it's necessary if I'm to learn anything. So the bridge between authority and authenticity may be the authority, the person who knows.

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