Decision making under absurdity.

October 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

“You know you are getting old when…” We all personalise the punch-line to that saying. For me that came a few days ago when somebody asked me what song I wanted playing at my funeral. Blimey, it only seems like last year that I was pulling on my first pair of long trousers or last month that a barber told me I had a fine head of hair and would I like highlights in it! So yes, I knew I was getting old when somebody asked me what song I wanted at my funeral. More alarmingly, I realised I actually was old because I knew exactly which song I wanted playing at my funeral.

Funerals are about celebrating the departed’s life and the accompanying music generally reflects that. It’s hardly surprising then that Paul Anka’s composition My Way, whether sung by Frank Sinatra or Sid Vicious, can often be heard drifting out of crematoria. Or, of course, Piaf. I have a lovely memory from a couple of decades ago of a road trip I made with my son. It was heading into winter and he was worrying about his exams, so as it was half-term we hopped in the car and skipped around Europe for eight days. Of course when we arrived back in Calais the port was blockaded. The motorways were barricaded with lorries and tractors, and a melange of truckies and farmers sat in deck chairs around folding tables, drinking red wine and scoffing pate and baguettes, their cheeks rosy not just from the wine but also from the glow of burning sheep’s carcasses upwind from their picnic (plus ça change). We headed towards Sangatte and found a cafe with music. The next couple of hours were spent listening to an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter singing Edith Piaf classics. The younger woman’s rendition of ‎Non, je ne regrette rien was stunning.

However powerful those memories are though, neither Piaf nor Sinatra would make the cut for me. There just seems something absurd, disingenuous and maybe even smug to conclude that you have lived a life with few if any regrets. If there is one thing that defines humanity it is our flawed capacity for decision making. Sure, we can make decisions, we do it all the time but too often we realise “God, I got that wrong”, so we change our minds and try to undo the decision. Not because we are either stupid or indecisive but because, as just about every psychologist/psychiatrist since Freud has pointed out, our perceptions are constantly shifted, distorted, and realigned at neurological, cognitive and social levels by the most obscure factors so that it is almost impossible for us, either individually or as a group, to process information without bias, accurately and consistently. Indeed, our whole social infrastructure is predicated on the recognition that we make decisions, regret them and wish to make an alternative decision.

When we make decisions we are effectively choosing between anticipated outcomes and we do that aware that our information is at best incomplete and outcomes are ill-defined. We were walking back from the village shop the other day and a red squirrel squirted across the path in front of us and tried hiding behind a low hedge. It was delicate and beautiful and of course although fairly common in Europe is almost entirely unknown in England. The introduction of the grey squirrel to the UK devastated the native red squirrel population and is likely to be irreversible. Victorians deliberately introduced grey squirrels to the UK around the same time as Australian settlers deliberately let loose wild rabbits for hunting purposes. Both these actions were the environmental equivalent of sticking a hypodermic needle full of heroin in your arm. Once released you can never be sure what the consequences will be but almost certainly they will be irreversible. Both individually and socially we have increasingly recognised the foolhardiness of making either/or decisions from which there is no going back.



Whenever I pop over to the UK I do the usual thing of stocking up on decent teabags and Pears soap but I’ll often also go into Marks and Spencer’s to refresh my underwear. Now, one of the reasons M&S have been so popular in the UK is their long-standing return policy. If I somehow have a brainstorm and buy Y-fronts, I can without any quibble take them back and be refunded within 35 days. Consumer protection legislation has nearly caught up with M&S and consumers generally have 30 days to return goods they consider not fit for purpose. The legislation is even more forgiving of poor choices if those choices were made on-line or as a result of cold calling. Contract law has moreover always protected against duress or false information. All this legislation is based on the knowledge that we sometimes make crass decisions, for a myriad of reasons, and should be given the opportunity to change our mind. The same principle is extended to criminal law.

Up until 1991, in the UK it was legally impossible to rape your marital partner. Until the marital rape exemption clause was abolished by the House of Lords, the law considered that in marrying someone you gave them carte blanche permission to use your body whenever they chose. The change in law reflects the growing recognition that people change their minds (and should be allowed to) not just over the course of years but in the course of an evening. Fortunately case law has increasingly refined the notion of sexual consent, with consent now being recognised as both conditional and transitory. Yes, a woman may take a man back to her flat with the absolute intention of having sex with him. They have a few drinks, he starts getting undressed and she says “Whoa”. She has taken one look at his body or his nature, and now with additional information she changes her mind and quite rightly is protected in law. Equally, as in the alleged case against Julian Assange, a man uses a condom when he makes love to a woman. The next time he makes love he doesn’t wear a condom and it therefore becomes rape. She made her initial decision on one set of expectations, if those expectations are changed without her consent that consent is null and void and she has been raped.

The thread of consent and conditional decision making runs across all elements of society. In Australia governments are elected for three years, in the States four years and in the UK five years. Whatever nonsense is spouted about The Wisdom of Crowds electoral cycles are based on the knowledge that electors change their minds, sometimes in recognition of the foolishness of a previous decision (e.g. G W Bush). It is also the case that perceptions can be so entrenched that voting becomes an act of faith rather than objective decision making. So an outsider looks at the current US presidential election and is aghast that nearly half the population seems prepared to commit an act of collective cultural and social suicide. Yet there is no doubting the sincerity of these voters’ perceptions so you have to move past your agape jaw…  “No surely not!”  and reassure yourself with the knowledge that it may only be for four years. Sure, people may end up regretting their decision but at least they have another chance in four years.

So pretty much everything we do is based on the realisation that we aren’t that good at decision making and the only way we can navigate our sea of regrets is to have a return policy that allows us to change course. It is therefore with bemusement that I listened to the British Prime Minister announce that “Brexit means Brexit”. Democracy has apparently spoken (well, 37% of registered voters have) and the will of the people must be respected. No matter that unlike other elections this vote is indeterminate and will echo down the generations. No matter that the will of the people was based on a combination of misinformation (from all sides) and hysteria. Or that within days of the vote the central plank of the exiters, namely that there would be an additional £350 million a day to fund the NHS, was ripped away by the Europhobes saying that was a mistake and should never have been said. Moreover, those who voted to leave the EU where effectively voting for secret Santa, they had no idea exactly what they were voting for or who was going to give it to them. So, one question Mrs May, why is it that when I realise that pink boxer shorts aren’t really me, I can change my mind and get a refund from M&S yet when the consequences of the Brexit vote become clearer, or in some areas even more obscure, there can be no going back, that’s it, we are stuck with it, or at least my children, and their children… are? Perhaps I’ll have to dig out my old Edith Piaf albums. Now there was a woman who knew how to hide the chaos of her life, her abject misery and her over-reliance on seedy, mean-spirited men, behind a veneer of having no regrets.


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