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The avoidance of pain and discomfort

In conversations with several others over the last month the above theme has come up several times. I’ve been thinking about it – and have put some thoughts together here. This is not advice.

It appears to me that the avoidance of immediate or impending pain and discomfort is a major driver in decision-making. That in itself should come as no surprise – after all we are biologically animals, hardwired to avoid all kinds of discomfort. This particular kind of avoidance not only drives decisions, it can make them.

I marvel that we are also the most sentient of animals known to crawl this earth; gifted with an order of intellect much measurably higher than other animals – and whilst I can easily excuse non-sentient animals (e.g. dogs, cats and birds etc) for reacting without much thought, to stimuli that cause discomfort of various kinds, I find it more difficult to do so for human beings. In this modern world there are discomforts of all kinds thrown at us from the moment we exit the womb. Cold air on the face – our first obvious discomfort – causes us to scream at birth. Growing up, learning new things – how to walk, run, talk, calculate, read, reason, plan, travel, adapt to social situations etc – they all involve degrees of discomfort.

As we grow older we come into more complex situations that involve greater and greater degrees of discomfort e.g. higher education, giving birth to children, minding children, moving homes, work-stress, immigration – and much much more.

How do people cope? It seems to me that the younger you are the fewer options you can exercise, so you’re more likely to ‘go with it’. You suffer, endure and get on because you don’t know any different. When I say suffer, I mean that few adults would relish having to learn to read and write all over again, for example. Taken into adulthood, we are faced with challenges that cause stress. All change involves some element of stress – or discomfort. In reality most of us in adulthood would prefer life to be pretty smooth with few changes and most things being reasonably predictable. Well, that’s what people say to me in not so many words. They also say, “..anything for an easy life” or “life’s too short”. These are words of ‘escape’ or ‘avoidance’ – and yes I know they can be interpreted a zillion different ways but it’s not possible for me to paint behavioural context here.

Actually adults do not cope well. I’ll bang on about how stressful it is for people in their adult years to learn about new technology – from computers to mobile phones. In fact most people do not use anything near the full potential of their computing devices. Once they get the hang of the basics of email and word-processing, it’ll take another stressor or incentive to shift them to learn more.

‘Self-driven’ to explore and learn is therefore a rare phenomenon from my biased personal observations. Adults need teachers, leaders and gurus of various kinds – anything that shows the path ahead in a more structured way, that is less potentially stressful. One way or the other people pay – either tangibly in terms of money, or intangibly by giving up some of their sense of autonomy to another – and by extension being cast in a mould set by another. Did I say any of this was morally wrong? No – I did not.

But I want to come to complex decision-making. When confronted with a really difficult decision what do people do? Surely they weigh up pros and cons, in varying degrees – varying from person to person how they do that. But what happens at the end of that weighing up? This is where logic is ditched – and where discomfort and emotion take over to a significant extent. I suggest that people will go with their emotions, gut instincts, and revert to any original values or social programming given to them. It’s powerful stuff – the non-cognitive aspects of human existence! And there is a degree of hypocrisy about it i.e. people pride themselves with being logical and reasonable, but in reality their decision-making processes may lack such elements or be over-ridden in a rather whimsical way.

The big deciding factor is the avoidance of discomfort. It weighs heavier if discomfort is predicted in close physical or temporal proximity to a decision (that’s natural). But the discomfort I’m talking about would encompass psychological factors e.g. fear, anxiety, uncertainty – discomfort about separation, isolation, and loneliness.

I know of one particular case where a colleague lost millions in personal savings, having made the wrong decision. Always in these situations people usually say ‘hindsight is better than foresight’. But I’m asking why is that the case – if the same set of facts are known (before and after). I’m not comparing situations where people come to new facts – because clearly that is to introduce new information that could not have been available at the time of decision-making. So – in other words there is some other factor that leads do a poorer decision in ‘foresight’.

When it comes to losses (tangible or intangible), we’re talking mainly irretrievable losses and irreversible consequences. How critical a decision is, depends on whether the consequences flowing from a decision are reversible or reversible with acceptable losses. However, many of life’s really difficult decisions are largely irreversible. This means that it is important that they are made correctly to achieve maximum benefit or best outcome.

I’m about to close now. I’ve put these thoughts out because they will form a template for developing a decision-making tool. Yep – it will be software based. It will include factors that are subject to logical analysis and those that are not. The idea is that in one space a person can see what their logical options are as well as the emotionally driven options. It is quite a task to draw this up. No – I’m not selling anything.

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