I made a terrible decision. Why?

I'm a thoughtful, careful, rational, slow decision maker. So why'd I make this crazy, rash, disastrous decision?

Topics: Since You Asked, Cognitive Bias, Decision Making,

I made a terrible decision. Why? (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I write to you because I am trying to understand on every level (spiritual, intellectual) why I did something, the consequences of which have been painful. I and I alone am responsible for making a decision that has led me to this point. In 2009, my partner floated the idea of moving down South to a state that I had visited and in fact, a state in which my parents still reside. I had never, ever considered moving to this state — which is the butt of many jokes, and justifiably so, and in fact, when she first made the suggestion, I laughed out loud, thinking that she was kidding. Several members of my partner’s church had moved there and spoke about how much they loved the place. In addition, they talked about forming an intentional community. We are all baby boomers and liked the idea that we would all be in a place where we could take care of each other.

I would like to give you some idea of the kind of person I am, which makes my decision, as well as my lack of judgment in making this decision even more surprising. I am introspective, a good listener and have intuitive thinking. I have just a few friends, but those friendships are deep, and stem from way back. I am also not much of a joiner or a group person. I am wary of religious groups and have never really belonged to a social clique. I also am a slow thinker, taking a long while to integrate information. I tend to do lots of research before making a decision, and ultimately I trust my instincts.

Instead of doing any kind of research, I trusted what our peers had said — that it was cheaper to live down here, etc. We sold our house up North and moved down South and bought a house. Within a very short period of time, I realized that our peers had deceived us. In fact, it is more expensive to live down here — salaries are at least 40 percent less, the cost of utilities is astronomical and it turned out that our so-called intentional community saw us as cash cows. We are not wealthy, but we are frugal and live a modest, comfortable lifestyle. I also discovered that heavy drinking is a big part of life down here and social get-togethers are a pretense for drinking. We had hired a friend and had to fire her shortly thereafter when we realized that she was charging us for time that she spent playing games on her computer. Other friends had offered to pet-sit for us, only to bail on us. The list of these kinds of experiences goes on and on.

Within a very short time, I became quite depressed, and realized that I had made a huge mistake by moving. It became quite apparent that members of this church were not only hypocrites but they were unkind and I became a pariah in this community because I did not go along with the group think. I was seen as radioactive and avoided because I did not feel the joy of having moved. Needless to say, without purposely doing it, I had alienated several people. My partner and I discussed my moving back up North and having a long-distance relationship, but we both realized that we did not want to live separately. I should say that my partner loves it down here and has been as empathetic as one can reasonably expect.

I dealt with my depression by writing. I cried for hours at a time, grieving the life, friends and neighbors that I left behind. I studied Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart” and took those teachings to heart in an attempt to have compassion for myself. I also immersed myself in gardening, which has helped with my depression. I realized that I was angry with myself for allowing myself to be swept along in a tide of others’ enthusiasm. I was angry that I trusted people without doing my own research. I realized too that part of why I moved was that I was afraid that my partner would move without me. My partner at no point issued an ultimatum, nor did she put any pressure on me. These were my own fears, but my partner does struggle with cold weather and with each winter we spent up North, I think my guilt became more intense.

My partner and I have come to an agreement that when she retires (in about five years), we will move north for the summers. I am now at a point where I have become curious as to what happened with my psyche. The expression that comes to mind is that my senses took leave of me. I believe that I am over the worst; I have accepted my pariah status and I have as little to do with these people as I can reasonably get away with, so I look to you to help me understand why a reasonably intelligent, informed, thinking woman would make such a lapse in judgment.

Yours,

Confused and Seeking Enlightenment

Dear Confused and Seeking Enlightenment,

You had many positive reasons for making this decision:

Parents live there
Members of the church doing it
Partner floated the idea
Makes sense for the future
Chance to form intentional community

It seemed like a real solution at the time. It seemed like a good idea. It’s possible that the reason you didn’t vet the opinions of your friends was that you wanted to believe your friends knew what they were talking about. That is, you had an emotional bias that you didn’t consciously recognize.

I love Wikipedia. I love its list of cognitive biases. My current favorite cognitive bias, which does not bear directly on your situation but bears more generally on all of human life since we first slimed up out of the primordial ooze, is the “Dunning–Kruger effect: an effect in which incompetent people fail to realise they are incompetent because they lack the skill to distinguish between competence and incompetence.”

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But let’s see how many cognitive biases might have been involved in your decision. When you pay attention, you realize that we are more or less constantly affected by cognitive biases. But here are some ones that may have been involved in this decision (in alphabetical order):

Anchoring
Bandwagon Effect
Empathy Gap
Focusing Effect
Hindsight Bias
Optimism Bias
Restraint Bias
Subjective Validation

Now, I’m guessing you are an Introverted Intuitive Thinking Perceiving type, or INTP. I am also an NT, but an ENTP; while we differ on the introversion/extroversion scale, it’s possible that we share the NTP tendency to become excited about possibilities.

I have to be careful not to get swept up in daft schemes. Ideas of possibility have so much power for me that I sometimes undertake efforts before I have looked at the downsides.

I get excited about stuff and do it. I deal with it later if it doesn’t work out. That’s not very smart. But that’s me. I want so much to just run with an idea that I will avoid looking at the downside if at all possible. I just want to do it!

If I don’t stop myself, that’s what I’ll do. I’m the kind that joins the circus and then complains about the pay.

I’m not dumb. I just don’t think! Seriously, I’m a thinking type but intuition rules me, and my love of possibility rules me; I am drawn to executing a vision; I am drawn to possibilities. I want to bring things into being. That’s why I exist.

You may also have felt this. It’s possible.

Other thoughts. You say the decision was made by you and you alone. I get why you say that. You want me to know that you’re not confused about who did it. But I truly wonder if  “I and I alone” even exists. Even when we take decisions alone, we take them in a web of interconnections.

You didn’t make this choice in a vacuum. You made it with your partner. It’s hard to separate out. It’s not like you’re a distinct person. I mean, you are, but you’re in a relationship. It can’t all be made transparent.

These things we do interest me greatly.

Here is an INTP profile.

I’m not sure in this forum discussion titled “INTP Decision Making Disorder” if they’re really talking  usefully or not, but maybe there’s something there.

And there’s this from the Personality Page:

“Information that is not logical is dismissed as unimportant. They may reject information that is not consistent with their logical view of themselves, or with their understanding of a situation. Well-developed Extraverted Intuition perceives situations with depth and global understanding. It recognizes possibilities. Introverted Thinking makes conclusions. If an INTP’s psyche is serving the purposes of Introverted Thinking above all else, then logical conclusions become more important than possibilities. In such cases, the INTP picks and chooses information from Extraverted Intuition that is interesting to them from the perspective of reaching logical conclusions. This keeps the INTP focused on reaching logical conclusions, but it prevents them from taking in any information that doesn’t work well with their logical functioning. This includes things like love, emotions, social expectations, etc. These things are very important to many people in the world, and cannot be discarded from consideration if one hopes to really understand other people and the society that we live in.”

So the preceding are some rational, thinking ideas about why you made the decision you made. There are a couple of fuzzier aspects. One, you just can’t ever tell exactly what’s going to happen no matter how hard you think it through. That’s just a given. And two, let’s not forget the craving of the irrational, the shadow, the thing we repress and ignore: Our monsters have their wants, too. How are we backhandedly feeding our monsters? For instance, a hidden desire to repeat what your parents have done, to live where your parents live: This is not an inconsiderable possibility. Other emotional things you may have overlooked: You didn’t want your partner to leave you. This may be an unfounded fear but still one that motivates you. Those of us who are thinking types give less weight to our emotions consciously, but our emotions figure into our decisions anyway; we just don’t admit that they do. So when a decision goes wrong, we neglect to consider how much emotion played a part.

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