Decision making, choices, outcomes. In my last two posts, I’ve covered some interesting ideas, facts and theories so far from various areas like chess, Bayesian filters, philosophy, The Way of the Samurai, Picasso and the Art of War in order to create a picture of the vast world of decision making and given this vastness I’m feeling that I’ve only started to scratch the surface of it.
There is no doubt that is wise to practice diligence and careful analysis before going head on into action but how much data do we need to collect and know in order to make correct decisions?
Usually, when it comes to decision making, the more data we have the better and when you need a resource in limited supply like data you need to consider the hidden costs of data acquisition. No data comes free and without an expenditure in time, energy, attention or money so it’s necessary to have a good estimate of this hidden cost and sometimes it’s more rational to go ahead and make decisions based on incomplete data rather than get stuck with acquiring expensive data and sunk cost. This type of rationality is called the theory of Rational Inattention.
In economics, the theory of rational inattention deals with the effects of the cost of information acquisition on decision making. For example, when the information required for a decision is costly to acquire, the decision makers may rationally take decisions based on incomplete information, rather than incurring the cost to get the complete information. – Wikipedia
Unfortunately, Wikipedia doesn’t offer more information than this about Rational Inattention. I’ve done a search and came upon an article by Christopher A. Sims, the author of this theory and the article is laden with equations, information theory, Gaussian-Linear-Quadratic equations and so on, in other words, unless your advanced math is up to date, the article is quite cryptic. Probably the guy that edited the Wikipedia article gave up too trying to understand the finer details of the theory and wrote just the stuff that I quoted. I don’t think that there are many people that make decisions after getting a pen and paper and solving Gaussian-Linear-Quadratic equations. Speaking of data acquisitions costs, trying to understand all of the mathematical models of the theory and writing about it would require a high cost in time, energy and attention, a cost that it wouldn’t be rational for me to incur given the small viewership that my blog has. Lesson in that.
In the first part of my previous post I was quoting Balthasar Gracian on the importance of diligence before executing an action. I was also mentioning the fact that it can happen to come upon seemingly contradictory advice in different sources. In this post we will see the other side of the coin, the importance of quick decision making and celerity.
I noticed in Chinese and Japanese literature the emphasis on swiftness over diligence as a way of war and as a philosophy of life. Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, is a collection of thoughts and commentaries about Bushido, the warrior code of the samurai. As characterized in this book, Bushido is seen more as the “Way of Dying” rather than the “Way of Living”, the samurai thinking of himself as being already dead and ready to serve his master, the daimyo, at any moment’s notice. There are plenty of stories told in the book of samurai warriors sacrificing their lives for their master and his property. The samurai has no second thoughts when it comes to making the ultimate sacrifice.
The Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, and it is best to dash in headlong. (Hagakure -Yamamoto Tsunetomo)
The Way of the Samurai instructs the samurai not only to act with immediacy but that he should also be “brave and joyous”:
When meeting calamities or difficult situations, it is not enough to simply say that one is not at all flustered. When meeting difficult situations, one should dash forward bravely and with joy. It is the crossing of a single barrier and is like the saying, «The more the water, the higher the boat.» (Hagakure -Yamamoto Tsunetomo)
The Way of the Samurai instructs the samurai to continually improve himself and sharpen his skills:
Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending. (Hagakure -Yamamoto Tsunetomo)
We can see now why the Way of the Samurai is one of immediacy, whatever the samurai does “should be done for the sake of your master and parents, the people in general, and for posterity”, he spends all his life preparing for the moment in which he can achieve his purpose, if he can’t respond with swiftness and agility when this time comes than all his training and skill goes to waste, he brings dishonor upon himself. Those quick decisions and action taking come after a lifetime of learning and preparation.
This reminds me about an episode in Picasso’s life: a woman comes to him and asks him to draw her portrait, he agrees and takes a few moments to study her and with a few quick movements draws her portrait. She is impressed with the outcome and asks how much it costs. “$5000”. “But why? You only took a few moments to draw it.”, to which Picasso replies: “Madam, it took me my entire life.”
Such is the Way of the Samurai. It takes an entire lifetime to deliver swift action.
I was mentioning Chinese and Japanese literature. Well, this culture of immediacy can be noticed in Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War. I believe that Sun Tzu and his book are widely known, there is no need to introduce them.
When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.
In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.
To the soldier, overwhelming speed is of paramount importance, and he must never miss opportunities. Now is the time to strike, before Hsiao Hsien even knows that we have got an army together. If we seize the present moment when the river is in flood, we shall appear before his capital with startling suddenness, like the thunder which is heard before you have time to stop your ears against it. (The Art of War – Sun Tzu)
What is life if not an ongoing battle from the moment you are born to the moment you die? We can draw a parallel between war and life and say that, as in war, let your great object in life be victory and the achievement of goals not lengthy, procrastinating campaigns. Sun Tzu knew psychology and knew what motivates men, you can’t keep men motivated for too long while they are in siege mode, dug in their trenches and waiting for the enemy to starve, to give up and surrender. When it comes to laying siege to goals there is no shame and dishonor if they surrender too quickly and the battle too easy, the resources needed to keep the siege going become available for the next siege. For the bigger, more entrenched goals that don’t want to surrender that easily there are two approaches: motivation, morale and resources need to be kept going, this can become quite costly so that fortress, that goals it’s better be worth conquering; the other approach is finding ways to end the battle quickly through trickery, deception and inventiveness, mine beneath the towers and the walls so they came tumbling down, pretend to give up and to return to your boats while living behind a wooden horse (like the Greeks did against Troy), offer to raise the siege if you are given 1000 cats and swallows (tactic used by Genghis Khan, he set burning banners and torches on their tails and the animals raced back to the city setting it on fire), throw dead animals over the walls with catapults. Of course, you don’t have to start looking for sparrows and dead animals in order to achieve your goals but you get the idea.
Diligence promptly executes what intelligence slowly excogitates. Hurry is the failing of fools; they know not the crucial point and set to work without preparation. On the other hand, the wise more often fail from procrastination; foresight begets deliberation, and remiss action often nullifies prompt judgment. Celerity is the mother of good fortune. He has done much who leaves nothing over till to-morrow. Festina lente is a royal motto. (Balthasar Gracian – The Art of Wordly Wisdom)
I’m trying to make a habit of reading 30 aphorisms each day from the book of wisdom, The Art of Wordly Wisdom by Balthasar Gracian. I did something similar last year when I read The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday, I haven’t read it daily, what I’ve done instead was to read a bunch of ‘dailies’ when I needed Stoic advice and wisdom the most.
From time to time it happens to come across advice that in one source seems contrary to advice given in other source. In this aphorism Balthasar Gracian tells about the importance of diligence over hastiness. On the other hand, too much rationalization and analysis of outcomes can lead to procrastination.
The wise usually have more life experience, a better view and understanding of the world, can see the problem from more angles and in more depth. They can also see more solutions. Like chess players, they have a better understanding of the board and can think several moves ahead. Chess is a simple game with simple rules, a limited number of chess pieces yet after the first opening moves it gets very complicated and complex. There are 72.048 possible positions after 2 moves, 9+ million possible positions after 3 moves and 288+ billion possible positions after 4 moves and the number of possibilities keeps growing from there. We can agree that the world is even more complex than the game of chess and the number of possibilities of events happening is even greater.
Given this complexity, there is no wonder that having a great number of possibilities and choices can lead to paralysis by analysis. In philosophy we have the illustration of this paralysis by analysis in the paradox of Buridan’s Donkey : a donkey that is equally thirsty and hungry is placed midway between a stack oh hay and a pail of water, unable to chose between the two options the donkey eventually dies.
How much preparation and diligence is too much? Is it really necessary to predict how the chess board will look like after five moves or is it sufficient to see only two-three moves ahead? In real life and in e-commerce, the answer is clear, the fewer options you show your customers the better the conversion rate will be, two-three options will lower their choice anxiety and perform better than 5 options. But this is only a small subset of the total set of possible choices that we have to do during our lifetime.
I did a search for “how to reduce the number of choices”, the search engine didn’t do that autocomplete thing that it does for popular search terms, which leads me to believe that not a lot of people are interested in this. The results that are returned are unsatisfactory, there is no theory, or platform or tool or anything that is useful in regards to reducing the number of choices. Choices belong to a wide array of domains and they are virtually infinite so there is no wonder that there is some universal way (that I know of) of reducing them.
However, a choice filtering system that I know of is the Bayesian Filter. The Bayesian filter is an algorithm that calculates and estimates the probability of a variable. That variable can be anything from a location, for example the next most probable location of a robot or a missile, a file that is probable to be a virus or not, an email that is probable to be spam or not. Many email clients are using this filter to filter out spam. The filter gives an estimated probability ranging from 0% to 100% (0 to 1), for example an estimation of 10% spam will mark the email as not spam, an estimation of 90% spam will mark the email as spam. It’s a good system in classifying variables in two ways, and as we have seen, the fewer choices the better and when these choices can be reduced to two is even better because they can be reduced even further using a Bayesian filter: 0 or 1? spam or not? good or bad? legit or not? chocolate or vanilla?
Bayesian filters are pretty good at doing certain things but their use is limited. Humans are complex machines and their decisions are influenced by a lot of factors, most of the time they are not even aware of them, and humans don’t usually think in terms of probabilities of events.
How much thinking and analysis of outcomes is too much? How much fast decision making and action taking is too fast? The balance between diligence and celerity is worth studying in more depth and this is exactly what I intend to do in future posts.