I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of choices as a kind of pyramid that you move around. It’s a bit nascent, but I’ll try my best to explain.
I MIGHT NOT HAVE RIPPLING ABS, BUT CHECK OUT MY DECISIONS
We’ve all heard of the slippery slope, but how many of us consider the perils of the slippery ladder? Or the slippery sidestep?
Because I’d like to posit that when we think of the downward slope, it’s just our mind trying to relate something abstract to the real world (gravity). Our minds are good at that kind of thing.
In fact, our minds are good at a lot of sneaky machinations in the background that form our “real world”. Some of course are real, but some are just the brain-equivalent of creative accounting.
We’re all aware on some level that the decisions we make have ripples, but how much of that rippling is within our control is questionable.
Whenever we decide to cheat (or not) on our partners, lie (or not) to our employers, be creative (or not) with our tax returns and forgive (or not) someone who annoyed us, the self-justification mechanism kicks in to assure us that we did the right thing.
Our attitudes and values become more and more deeply entrenched. It provides an explanation – a partial one at least – for how other people manage to do the foolish, selfish and mean spirited things they do. They do them in precisely the same way we do the foolish, selfish and mean-spirited things we do … as well as the courageous, silly & generous things.
WHAT DRIVES SELF-JUSTIFICATION?
Our brains find it incredibly uncomfortable holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously. Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance.
No matter how curious and receptive we are, we carry around preconceived notions of the world and our own place in it. Are you a decent and honest person? Caring? Generous? Kind? Of course you are. And how do you know that? You’re carrying around an image of yourself.
So what happens when we make a decision that conflicts with our self image? Say, for example, a friend is going through an emotionally rough time with her Master, and asks if she can tell you about it over dinner. You don’t want to come between a fighting couple and you say you can’t right now. Perhaps you tell a little white lie about how you’re swamped at work at the moment.
Your belief that you’re a caring and generous person conflicts with what you’ve just done, and that cognitive dissonance is so unpleasant that your brain will immediate cut in to start repairing the damage.
“She’s not really that close a friend. It’s her own fault she gets into these situations, she’s so bad at picking partners. And anyway, they’re sure to break up soon and I’ll see him out at a munch or party and I won’t be able to look him in the eye. Long after she’s forgotten about him and moved on with her life, he’ll still hate me. She’ll find someone else to talk to, it doesn’t have to be me.”
Cognitive dissonance has driven you to self-justification… but don’t feel too bad about it. We all do it, all the time.
MOVING UP, DOWN AND ACROSS THE PYRAMID OF CHOICE
Getting back to the slippery slope, the thing with self-justification is that it doesn’t have to be excusing bad behavior. It can go in any direction.
I’ve been thinking of it like a pyramid. Take this example:
In a close-knit group of friends, one of the women is cheating on her Master and her female friends know. At different times, two of the women find themselves in conversation alone with the cheating woman’s Master. The first decides to say nothing, but the second finds a point in the conversation where she feels sorry for the man and says “Listen Brian, there’s something I think you need to know…”
I’ll leave it to you to decide who did the right thing. The women hadn’t thought through their strategy, and the decision could have gone the other way, but you can be sure if you spoke to the women a week later that their attitudes would have hardened. They would have both had ample time to reflect on… and justify… their actions.
The woman who decided not to tell will have thought about loyalty to her friend, how it is not her responsibility to interfere, and how much hurt and damage it would have caused if she’d mentioned it.
The woman who told, on the other hand, will know she was absolutely right to do so. Cheating is dishonest and it was the Master’s right to know. He’s a friend too. In the long term it’ll be for the best because they’ll either sort it out or break up, and they can move on to find happiness.
So what happened here? A week ago the two women were at one corner of the pyramid, standing side-by-side, and now they’ve slid to different corners, seemingly poles apart.
Up, down or sideways? That’s a value judgement we can’t make.
FREEDOM FROM GRAVITY
Someone wiser than me said “there are no good or bad decisions, just decisions”. As someone who’s scraped my knees more than once in my life, I’m not sure I totally agree, but I think what the pyramid of choice shows is that there’s often not one “right” decision.
Like everything in life, it’s a tricky, grey, pliant concept.
And that’s quite liberating. We can stop torturing ourselves for the one, absolute, correct way. It’s going to be OK. If we’re true to ourselves then our decisions are probably good decisions, regardless of whether we choose Route A or Route B.
Yes, we’ll occasionally make some foolish choices. Yes, there will be roads not travelled.
But try to be the best you that you can possibly be. And shoot for the stars. And you’ll find lots of reasons why that’s a good thing.