In a particularly bad recent bout of anxiety, I learned what seemed to me to be a new and exciting mental move, which I named ‘making a judgment call’. If you had asked me previously whether I made judgment calls, I would have said ‘yes’ however, so describing what I am talking about here is perhaps somewhat subtle.
When I have to decide about something and the relevant issues are not certain, I think I have usually waited for the world to resolve enough uncertainty to make the decision clear. For instance, for it to become clear that the food is safe to eat or sufficiently likely to be unsafe that it should be thrown out. I mean, I thought and collected evidence, but the procedure was to go through these procedures until the answer was returned. The thing I would have called ‘making a judgment call’ was something like ‘think until it becomes clear that the food is safe’ (then ‘the food is safe’ is your judgment) or perhaps ‘think until it is clear at a higher level that more thinking isn’t worthwhile’. You make a judgment by becoming confident in the expected value calculation. It isn’t necessarily an explicit calculation, but you feel confident enough that one side is right.
But you can also just stop before anything is clear. Before you even have a clear assessment of the relevant uncertainties and expected values, or which heuristics are solidly applicable in this case. Instead of waiting until the best way to act reveals itself to you, you can make a decision. You can just say ‘nah, the food is fine, I judged it so’.
Something like that felt like a mental motion that I didn’t know that I could do. A bit like learning to wiggle your ears, when you didn’t know where the muscles were. A friend asked me what this mental motion felt like. I can’t remember what I said, but now I’d say it has a sense of ownership and mineness. I suppose because what was more a feature of the circumstance has been replaced by my own will.
Surely I have always often done something like this in other kinds of cases, e.g. when I’m deciding where to put the tomato on my lunch plate I don’t do any kind of implicit EV calculation that I’m aware of. But the mental motion there feels different—the situation doesn’t present itself as a choice in the same way perhaps. I think I just follow some feeling of what is right. Which seems like a different interesting avenue of decision making exploration, but I shan’t go into it here.
I think my ability to do this comes and goes, and I might be wrong that it is a distinct thing, or a thing I hadn’t done much before. I don’t have a detailed recollection of my mental processes in general. But this is what it seemed like to me.
This schema of there being some passive process which can be replaced with an active decision—and of being able to make a decision where you didn’t know you could—reminds me a bit of the kind of mistake where you jump to trying to get things (or assuming that you are trying to get things) because you feel desire for them. Or the one where you jump to thinking that you believe a thing, because it is displayed in your head sometimes. But actually you can choose what to pursue, and what to believe, and it’s way better. Well, you can also choose what decisions to make.
Perhaps in general, you can observe who you are or you can choose who you are. (Or, either way you are choosing, but maybe choosing badly because you haven’t noticed that you have a choice). And these aren’t different ways of seeing the world, they are different sets of processes you can run.