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Two Book Recommendations for the Holidays

If you’re ready to cosy up by the fireplace with some good books, I have two suggestions. They are both classics in
their fields, but they couldn’t be more different. The first is a novel by one of the great German poets. The
second is a concise introduction into the research on decision making.

1. Johann W. von Goethe. Elective Affinities, a novel published in 1809 .
(original: “Wahlverwandtschaften“; also translated under the title “Kindred by Choice“) .

The title refers to a chemical reorganization of substances, which Goethe uses as a metaphor for human relationships, and as a way to question our ability to choose our own actions and resist the forces of nature.
The novel begins at just at that point where many other stories end: with a happy, recently married couple, settling into a comfortable, long sought-after, idyllic life together. Their decision to invite other people into their lives is approached like a chemical experiment, and it wouldn’t be a Goethe novel if this setup didn’t lead to disturbing reactions.

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Regret

In this TED talk, Kathryn Schulz makes the rather unusual
claim that regret is not always a bad thing:

It is a worthwhile talk for many reasons. One thing I found
particularly remarkable was a study she cites, which showed
that the kinds of decisions people regret most are decisions
concerning their education and career. Next up are romance
and parenting as fields where people experience considerable
regrets.

Interestingly though, people seem to have hardly any regrets
about finances or health, which are by far the most
extensively researched decision domains.
I do hope that more decision scientists will in the future
venture out into those other (messier?) domains, like
relationships or careers, where people seem to have a lot
more difficulties with their decisions.

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Relationship decisions – deciding matters…

Here is a very interesting new take on an older debate: why is living together before marriage, particularly before engagement, associated with higher risks for divorce?
http://www.scienceofrelationships.com/home/2012/9/11/twos-company-but-is-it-necessarily-bad-company.html

It is an uncomfortable finding for us secular liberal folks…. accordingly, many explanations have been brought forth, such as that the two groups likely differed from the beginning (correlation is not causation, post-hoc is not propter hoc, etc.). This newer study though not only controls for many selection factors in a huge sample, but additionally uses a longitudinal subsample, which makes it harder to make those arguments.

Among other explanations that the article mentions, here is – of course! – my favorite: people who start living together before really committing to each other may “slide” into a marriage, rather than deciding consciously and fully before taking that step. Interestingly, people who get engaged before moving together show the same pattern as those who get married before moving together, which is consistent with that interpretation.
I simply take that as yet another vote for making our decisions carefully and consciously, and then truly owning them.

Rhoades, G.K. and Stanley, S.M. and Markman,

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