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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  • May 1 2013: Pabitra, I interpret your question in two parts. Why do we so often default to authority and, second, how can we change it?

    Maybe our primary evolutionary goal was to survive through the energy conservation of the brain rather than thinking, which can be energy consuming. If so, our decision making skills would tend to default from a low energy spectrum to a high energy spectrum. Habit would be first, obeying an authority figure second, with critical inquiry being last. Now even if we overcome the gravitational pull of the first two options, and take action based on critical inquiry, we have a problem. We risk rejection by becoming part of the out group. Not a great way to survive evolutionarily.

    As a owner of three businesses, I face a similar problem with my employees. I try to model that challenge can be fun rather than threatening by encouraging it and reframing it as a sign of both intelligence and courage.
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      May 1 2013: Hi Brian! I like the insight you bring into the question.
      It's an interesting outlook for decision making based on energy conservation and it makes perfect biological sense. However, even from evolutionary point of view 'energy intensive' critical thinking must have a necessity as nature does not permit any excess. So it looks like we have developed a range in our faculty, like auto pilot, normal drive and turbo. :)
      I think you will agree it is necessary for us to explore the full range and exploit it. One who is knowingly deciding something based on authority is very different from the one who does not even know the difference between authority and authenticity.
      It may be interesting for you to empower your employees, at least in certain areas of functioning, to challenge your authority based purely on reason. I head a team of engineers and scientists working on a very specialized field of river hydraulics. I benefited from that approach.

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