Do People Decide What to Do?

We develop a narrative of intention to justify our feelings.

Posted May 08, 2017

I don’t like it when people say that a criminal decided to do something bad, or that a disruptive colleague decided to upend a meeting, or that a teenager needs to make better choices. In my view, it’s rare in life that people make decisions and then act on them. Sure, first we decide which restaurant to go to and then we almost always go there. But most of the time, the decision-making process is a pretense, or there isn’t a process at all. By pretense, I mean a decision like which college to attend or which house to buy, where we act as if we’re weighing pros and cons, but we already know what we’re going to do. I used to start my couple’s therapies by asking if anyone had already committed to leaving the relationship and was using couple’s therapy as the first step.

Most of the time, though, we don’t even pretend to decide what to do. To qualify as a bona fide decision, there would have to be a decent interval between the decision and the action. Usually, what we mean by decide is a prior verbalization of intent, whether out loud or silently. “I’m going to leave this party and drive home drunk” would signify a choice; “I’m okay to drive” signifies someone not making a choice. “I’m going to get a glass of water” isn’t really a decision; it’s just a vocalization of what you are bound to do. “I’ll have the fish” may be a decision (with the subsequent, confirmatory behavior not being, of course, preparation of the fish yourself, but complaining when something other than fish is served). Even “I’ll have the fish” is not a decision if you always have the fish.

Tolstoy explains this at the end of War and Peace, attributing the illusion of command to two main sources. One is that once an event has occurred, we forget about all the things that did not happen instead. Our imagination flitters across a hundred possibilities and one alternative is executed. We forget about the 99 that did not correspond to the demands of the situation and say we intended to do the one thing that the situation required. The other source of confusion is our glamorization of the individual. We prefer a narrative with a romantic figure, a rugged individualist who is in command of himself or herself. So we develop a post-event narrative of intention to make us feel as if we are the captains of our souls, the masters of our fates (from Henley’s Invictus). We are all cold readers with respect to ourselves, carnival fortune-tellers saying things like, “You’re not married are you?” and claiming to have predicted it when true and saying, “No, I thought not” when false.

Our internal “decision-making” verbal narrative is less like the fantasy of a commander giving orders than it is like Al Michaels narrating Sunday Night Football. If you don’t pay close attention, it can seem as if the announcer is causing the players to do what they do. “Brady takes the snap and drops back to pass” occurs almost simultaneously with the action. Indeed, in a no-back set on a passing down, Al Michaels might utter this phrase before it happens, and then the illusion is even more convincing.

We claim decision-making and choice for ourselves—when things have gone well—to paint ourselves as effective and even immortal in the sense of claiming a mind or soul that drives the body. We attribute decision-making and choice to others to justify our anger at them. If your roommate didn’t do the dishes, she is guilty of neglect; if she “chose” not to do them, she is guilty of trespass, rudeness, and disrespect. Generally, intentional torts allow for punitive damages and premeditated crimes are more harshly punished. The idea of her staying up late the night before, conniving how best to irritate you, and coming up with the strategy of leaving her breakfast dishes on the counter—this idea makes your rage seem reasonable.

What’s really important in managing irritating conduct is what the behavior gets the person and how else they can get it. But when we’re annoyed, we don’t feel like empathizing with the miscreant and assisting them in meeting their goals via some other, less annoying means. Instead, we view them through a lens of intentionality and unload on them. Of course, there are times in life when fighting back is the best alternative, but even then, one need not resort to the boot-camp strategy of villainizing the enemy. This leads to war crimes, because the window is quite narrow between the amount of demonization that justifies armed conflict and that which justifies torture. In everyday life, there is an equally narrow window between a construction of events that justifies feeling anger and one that justifies expressing it.