Decision making for the long term

We quickly learn that short-term decision making, our day to day decisions, are the most important for us.  If we ignore them or get them wrong then they soon come back to bite us. They have an immediate effect on our lives. And so we tend to concentrate on them.

There are of course many aspects of our lives which determine our place in society and our interactions with others. 
Things like dress, speech or tattoos - which we adopt consciously or unconsciously - are used to determine what part of society we belong to.
They tend to have a longer-term effect.

Altruism, too, has a significant effect on our place in society. Acting altruistically always used to be thought of as an example of acting out of goodness, a genuine wish to help others with no thought of a return, something of the moment – and so a short term decision. Of course there were always some cads - much frowned upon by society - who would pretend to be helpful in order to worm their way into someone’s affections. I imagine in fact that most people would still explain altruism in these terms, even though we know from lots of research on us and other animals, and our own common sense, that it is far from true. 

If we think about it, we would have to admit that altruism is actually, apart from amongst a few saints, ‘altruism with a purpose’.  It is no doubt largely a sub-conscious strategy, but one we use on a medium term basis to maximise the returns (in a nice way, of course) which can be obtained from being a part of a family, a particular sector of society or of a group of some sort. We only have to ask what happens if our altruism is not appreciated in a tangible way over time. We are more than likely to move on to another person or group who will welcome us by showing similar behaviour in return.  Of course, we don’t expect an immediate return on our nice behaviour.  It is a medium term strategy.

What about long-term decisions, though?  How do we weigh long-term advantage against short-term gain?  After all, we are increasingly able to anticipate the long-term consequences of our actions and, with the relative stability of our society and longer life spans, the long-term has an ever-increasing relevance to our lives.  But although it may be the ‘rational’ way forward, even looking ahead a few months to the exams at the end of a degree course can seem like an eternity when the pub and your mates beckon. When thinking about pensions, it is difficult to envisage being 70 when you are only 30 and it is even more difficult to believe that the 40 years will pass as quickly as they do.

Until very recently, in evolutionary terms, our aims were directed at keeping us alive on a day to day basis.  We had the immediate need to get food, avoid being eaten by wild animals or killed by members of other tribes.  Long term pension provision was not on the menu. But it is essentially the same brain that is being used to make decisions for our technological times.  Its mix of emotions and drives and the weight they each have, have had very little time in evolutionary terms to change significantly since those simpler days when short to medium-term action was all there was and our drives and emotions were fine-tuned accordingly.  It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that we feel a bit at sea when we are faced with decisions to do things which will only affect some seemingly remote future and, sometimes then, only in an uncertain way.

But if it would be ‘rational’ to take steps to secure our  future, why is it so difficult to behave, well, rationally?  Well, the answer is that there is a misunderstanding which is inherent in the question. It is commonly assumed that in the ideal world we should try to act more rationally and less emotionally.  What is ignored is that the emotionless Mr Spock from Star Trek would be a very poor role-model.  It has long been reported in connection with people who have brain damage that if our emotions are disconnected from our thought processes, then we will do nothing. A Mr Spock, with all his logic would do absolutely nothing unless he had an aim he wanted to achieve.

Reason itself merely enables us the better to foresee the likely outcome of the options before us and how to attain them more easily. Using reason without emotion is like having a map, but not wanting to go anywhere!  So how do we resolve the difficulty of a lack of ability to deal with the long-term?

Well, it seems that the world of psychology can now give us the answer.  Well, at any rate, they have now formulated yet another theory about decision making.  “Construal Level Theory” seems to have come to the fore in about 2010. The Psychological community evidently likes making up obscure names for things. I suppose it sounds more impressive than would be the more obvious description: ‘Perception theory’ - after all, the theory actually deals with how we perceive ‘distance’, whether emotional, spatial or temporal between us and a thing, person or event.

The general idea is that the more ‘distant’ an object is from the individual, the more it will be thought of in abstract terms. The closer the object is, the more concretely it will be thought of.

The example often given is that planning a holiday for next year will focus on the sun and sea. Planning a holiday for next month, though, is going to focus on things like hiring a car and many other practical issues. It is a quite important difference in perception and of a sort which affects many situations. In the context of climate change, we know that possible disaster at some time towards the end of the century is thought of, if at all, in abstract terms.  We don’t have any very clear idea of how or if it may affect us as individuals and so its persuasive power is not very great. We can always comfort ourselves with the possibility that science will by then have provided us with the means to overcome the problem.

I’m sure that the average person is not thinking quite so abstractly now.  And indeed, neither are the rest of us. Although the natural disasters we see around the world are often spatially a very long way away, TV now brings the enormity of the problem, in very concrete terms, into our living rooms. 

Suddenly we are all persuaded of the reality of climate change and its present and even worse future effects. That’s how we now construe the information presented to us, at least until the next lot of headlines come along - until say Harry and Meghan's complaints about the rest of the royal family displace climate change as the problem du jour...

We have always known, however, even without Construal Theory, that it’s our emotions that we have to influence if we want to increase the likelihood of acting in our long-term interests. It is not a matter of overcoming a weakness of intellect. Well, perhaps it depends on the person. But we know that change in our attitude to the long term will only happen if we can make the result of our long term decisions more real in the present.  We have to ‘feel’ the effect now of the various possible courses of actions which we might take. 

The more detail in which we think about possible outcomes, the more real they will seem and the more they will engage our emotions, amplifying our wish to achieve or avoid those consequences.  It is like the way athletes are encouraged to imagine each step of the race in order to make it real to them in advance.

I am afraid though that the human mind has not yet really evolved very far along the path necessary to enable us to have deep within us a different balance of aims directed more at the long term. Even though we may be once more on the cusp of wiping ourselves out, in fact it’s only been a couple of hundred years since we started to understand the science which enables us now to do so. In evolutionary terms, that's not long at all. M
aybe we will actually change over the coming millennia in response to evolutionary pressure. Perhaps Captain James T Kirk of the Starship ‘Enterprise’ will indeed find it easier to weigh things differently – if we, as the human race, can survive for that long.

Paul Buckingham

25 August 2021

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