Decisions shape our lives, but psychologists say we are remarkably bad at making them. That’s true of strategic decisions, tactical decisions and decisions made in the heat of the moment. Typically, we are poor at assessing risk, understanding probabilities and anticipating consequences. We overestimate our capacity to make good decisions and underestimate the true influence of emotion, bias and assumptions in what we do.
We need to learn for ourselves how to make good decisions and that’s where the Buddha comes in. His teachings won’t help with the specifics, but they offer insights into the process of how to make a wise decision. And the starting point is clearing our minds of the approaches that lead us to make bad ones.
What not to rely on
One day the Buddha spoke with a group from the Kalama clan who were trying to decide what to believe. They told him that many religious teachers passed through their town, each declaring that he alone possessed the truth. So who on earth should the Kalamas follow? The Buddha responded by listing ten reasons why people typically believe things and said they should question the lot. (For more detail on each of the items on this list see this excellent commentary by Nagapriya).
- It’s what people have always believed
- It comes from a venerable lineage
- It’s what everyone is talking about
- It says so in an ancient scriptures
- Because the person telling me this seems to be an expert
- Because that’s what my teacher says
These are six kinds of authority that often govern how we think and act. You can easily see how they apply to religions with their priesthoods and scriptures. But similar kinds of group-think and deference apply elsehwere as well. Consider professional life, for example. Every profession has its canon of received wisdom, its authorities and experts and is affected by fashions, rumours and loyalties. The Buddha isn’t saying you should reject everything the authorities say but that you shouldn’t believe them just because they are authorities.
Unlike the Buddha, we don’t live in a traditional society where long-standing ways of thinking carry tremendous weight. Plenty of people still believe things because they are in the Bible (and, while we are at it, plenty of Tibetan Buddhists trust the words of their Lama as if they were Gospel), but that’s not the general tenor of modern life. These words have led some people to see the Buddha as a proto-modern freethinker and sceptic. But his list continues with a caution against believing something on apparently more rational grounds:
- Because of clever arguments
- Because it seems to be logical
- Because you have worked it out
- Because you’ve been thinking about it for such a long time
This is more challenging for most of us, but a little reflection shows that we often make our biggest mistakes when we place undue trust in our capacity to figure things out. We are easily swayed by seemingly eloquent ideas, and pride creeps in when we think we’ve worked something out for ourselves. Just think of the pride that came before the crash of 2008. Or the dotcom bubble. Or the great depression. Being clever doesn’t make you right, as a glance at academia demonstrates. Intellect alone produces a wide range of answers, which is why economists and philosophers disagree with one another. In fact, being clever can simply reinforce the delusion that you know the answers when really you don’t.
Perhaps the most telling of all is the suggestion that we believe things simply because we have grown accustomed to thinking in a particular way. It’s not just generals who are always preparing to fight the last war.
Clearing the ground in this way is essential if we are to make wise decisions. At the time of the UK’s 2010 election I explored this in a Thought for the Day broadcast on BBC Radio 4. The competitive frenzy of an election campaign surely resembles the ferocious religious marketplace of the Buddha’s day. Our underlying political loyalties may be inherited from parents or picked up from friends, or else we may be drawn by appeals to self-interest or swayed by charisma. We understand that we need to go beyond these, but trying to figure things out rationally only gets you so far.
Making Wise Decisions
So what do you do? I’ll be returning to this question in future posts, but we can start with what the Buddha says to the Kalamas
When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.
He’s advising us to reflect on our experience. We need to become aware of ourselves and the forces at work in the situations we encounter. As we can’t trust authority, revelation or analysis we have to come back to our own experience. Setting aside our biases, we must reflect on what we have truly learned from our lives about what really brings benefit and happiness. That’s how we find our values. We need to look honestly and directly at the situation we confront, taking in all the evidence that presents itself and finding a response that expresses those values most fully. That’s a lot harder than just going with the pack, but the mention of ‘the wise’ is also a reminder that we can learn from others as well.
There’s a lot in this, and in future posts I will return to the Buddha’s words to explore their significance further.
Follow this Up
The Kalama Sutta is found in the Anguttara Nikaya 3:65
The Kalama Sutta (Access to Insight)
An excellent, detailed discussion of the Kalama Sutta by Nagapriya