How Should We Make the Most Important Decisions of Our Lives?

A philosophical debate.

Illustration by Roman Muradov

Illustration by Roman Muradov

Paul Bloom: Hi Laurie. Your new book Transformative Experience hits the sweet spot: It’s a significant scholarly work, bearing on deep philosophical issues, but it’s also engaging and accessible. You ask a great question: How can we rationally decide whether or not to undergo certain irreversible changes, such as having a child, or taking LSD, or becoming religious? You say we can’t, but I don’t agree. Thanks for discussing it with me.

L.A. Paul: Hello, Paul. It’s a real pleasure to discuss these philosophical issues with such an eminent psychologist.

The central idea in my book involves the notion of a transformative experience, which, as I understand it, is a kind of experience that is both radically new to you and changes you in a deep and fundamental way. Many of life’s biggest decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself. The lesson I draw is that life may be more about discovery, and coming to terms with who we’ve made ourselves into via our choices, than about carefully executing a plan for self-realization. With many big life choices, we only learn what we need to know after we’ve done it, and we change in the process of doing it. 

Transformative Experience raises questions about how we can rationally make decisions about our futures when we stand at a crossroads in life. I’m interested in experiences like becoming a parent, discovering a new faith, emigrating to a new country, or fighting in a war. If an experience irreversibly changes who you are, choosing to undergo it might make you care about very different things than you care for now.

Bloom: So, you say that for everyday choices—should I buy a new car?—one can act based on one’s intuition about what it would be like to have made, or not made, the choice. But transformative experiences change the kind of person you are; you can’t imagine, now, what it will be like to be you after the experience. Introspection fails. And therefore, you write, there is no good way to decide; one might just as well flip a coin. 

Paul: Introspection is no help in deciding here, because who you are and what you care about is going to change when you strike out into the unknown. 

Bloom: But it does seem as if there’s an alternative. You can check out the experiences of similar people who have gone through the relevant transformation. When my wife and I were deciding whether to have a child, we were interested in the experiences of our friends who had recently become parents. I’ve never taken LSD, but I’ve read Sam Harris saying positive things about the experience … and it got me tempted. Similar positive testimony motivated me to try regular meditation. On the other hand, I’ve heard enough bad stories about heroin that I’ll give that one a pass.

You hate this solution. You describe it as inauthentic and unnatural. You give the example of “Sally,” who decides not to have a child because of the data, and write: “For her to choose this way, ignoring her subjective preferences and relying solely on external reasons, seems bizarre. … If Sally, in effect, turns her decision over to the experts and eliminates consideration of her personal preferences, she seems to be giving up her autonomy for the sake of rationality.”

I don’t see this. Sally doesn’t lose her autonomy by considering external reasons. Suppose I want to have a good time at the beach and I think the weather looks fine. But I turn on the Weather Channel and it says it will rain. So I stay home, because I think the Weather Channel is pretty accurate. What’s wrong with that? 

Of course, Sally might be mistaken in trusting the data. Maybe the studies are done poorly, maybe the anecdotes aren’t representative. And happiness data only matter if she cares about happiness. If Sally’s subjective preference is to have a child, regardless of whether or not it makes her happy, then it would be silly for her to defer to such data. But if she wants to have a happy life, and has evidence that having a child would make her sad, then she shouldn’t have a child. 

A similar point applies to thinking about the lives of other people. Early in your book, you point out the parallel between understanding our future selves post-transformation and understanding other people who are very different from us. Just as a sighted person can’t properly imagine what it would be like to become blind, he or she also can’t properly imagine what it’s like to be someone who is blind. 

I think this is a deep point, and there’s more to be said here about the problems we have empathizing with individuals—either other people or ourselves in the future—who are different from us. But again, there are alternatives to introspection. When it comes to knowing the inner lives of other people, we can just ask them. 

Paul: You ask, what’s the problem? Why not replace introspection with what others tell us about the experience, or with more systematic data about how people like us tend to fare? This may be the right thing to do in the end, but the cost in terms of autonomy is real, and not one we are usually willing to pay if the decision really matters to us. 

In your example, Sally wants to be happy, sees evidence that children will make her unhappy, and decides not to be a parent. Seems reasonable. But following the evidence and ignoring your inner point of view creates more of a dilemma in some cases than others. Suppose that Sally wants to be happy, but that she is confident that she’ll only be happy if she becomes a mother. Then she sees a lot of empirical data that having children makes people unhappy. What should she do? 

Here the strategy of ignoring her own introspective evidence is a lot less straightforward. This is because the empirical data doesn’t give Sally evidence that having a child would make her sad. It gives her evidence of what the average association between happiness and having a child has been for other people. If introspection is to be ignored, Sally must decide solely on the basis of the way other people have responded, on average, to becoming a parent, and not on her own—perhaps extremely strong—intuitions about how she thinks she’ll respond.

What about advice from the people who really know you? Consider Sally’s mother, Janet, who is also sure that Sally will love being a mother. Janet tells Sally to ignore the evidence gathered by psychologists and sociologists. What Sally needs to know now is whether she should follow the experts or listen to her mom. Again, what should Sally do?  We’ve already granted that she can’t use introspection to help her assess conflicts between advice from the experts and advice from the people who know her best.

Of course, introspection might be a terrible guide to what we really want from our lives. I suspect that it is. But while rejecting introspection might be rational, we rarely want to abandon it completely when making important personal choices about how to live our lives. Instead, we tend to mix it with evidence in rather unstable ways. We’re often surprised at our own experiences and rueful about what we now see as our earlier, deluded predictions of how things would go. But at the same time, we’re confident about our current views.  

So when I consider the major, irreversible, long-term and life-changing decision to have a baby, of course I should weigh what other people tell me about it, and I should also attend to what the best science says. But I also want to consider what I think it will be like for me. After all, I’m the one who will be spending the next 18 years raising my child. I want to base my decision, at least partly, on what I think it will be like to be a parent, and I want my thoughts and feelings about it to play a central role in what I decide to do. If becoming a parent is transformative, I can’t rationally do that.

Bloom: We agree about the failures of introspection for transformative experience. If Sally is wondering whether having a baby would make her happy, she can’t find out by imagining what it would be like. But we disagree about whether Sally could rationally proceed by using data from other people. 

You lose me when you say that Sally should discount information about other people just because it isn’t specific to her. If you heard that Sally was suffering from a severe infection but had no plans to take antibiotics—because everything Sally knows about the efficacy of antibiotics comes from other people—you would think she was nuts. Sally is a person, after all, and so data from other people are relevant to her. This is obvious when it comes to Sally’s body; why isn’t it true as well for her mental states? 

Now, I am not saying that Sally should type babies happiness into Google Scholar, read the top 10 articles, and decide that way. I’m a fan of happiness research and think it can provide useful suggestions as to how to improve your life, but, still, there aren’t yet the sort of robust and established findings that Sally should bet her life on. 

On the other hand, happiness is one domain where we really should all benefit from Big Data. Suppose Sally could get aggregated reports from thousands of people who are similar to her, comparing these to data from a control group who decided to stay childless. Or, to go back to my deciding-to-take-LSD example, I have heard good things about the experience from others, which is an argument in its favor. But what I really would want is data from 10,000 people just like me. If 99 percent are neutral to positive, count me in; if a sizable proportion describe it as horrific, count me out. This sort of crowdsourcing would make for an excellent app. And it should sound familiar; it would do for life experiences what innumerable websites do for books, movies, hotels, songs, and most everything else. 

Actually, the existence of all these sites makes me wonder how natural it really is to rely on one’s own intuitions and ignore third-party data, even in the domain of happiness. Suppose Sally has her heart set on a certain beach resort, goes to a review website, and discovers that it has a one-star rating, with hundreds of reviewers describing it as the worst experience of their lives. Would Sally really conclude that these are data about the association between visiting the resort and happiness for other people, and hence they doesn’t speak to what her own experience would be like? My bet is that she would decide to vacation elsewhere. 

I’m moving away from transformative experiences here, and this is intentional. You describe transformative experiences as special, because of their radical newness and how they change the sorts of people we are. As such, they can be distinguished from more everyday decisions such as what sort of car to buy or what sort of vacation to take. This seems right, but there is also a sense—and I don’t think we are disagreeing here—in which transformative experiences and regular experiences are similar. 

Consider research done by Dan Gilbert and others that explores how good we are at anticipating what will make us happy. These “hedonic forecasting” studies look at mundane life events—how unhappy would you be if you just missed a train by a few minutes?—as well as dramatic, perhaps transformative, events, such as winning a lottery or becoming a paraplegic. And the studies find that we are bad at this; we have intuitive theories about what makes us happy but often these are quite wrong. Apparently, we suffer from introspective failure for all sorts of future experiences. To quote Yogi Berra: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Paul: Are you suggesting that Sally should crowdsource her decision to have a baby?

More seriously, my view is precisely that, if she has good enough data, the only rational way for Sally to choose is to rely on the science. So we agree here: When we make big decisions as well as small, the rational thing to do, if we have good enough data, is to dispense with introspection and make the choice based on the science.

The point is that this can be a very surprising and difficult situation to be in. It’s surprising to be told that my own intuitions about what it would be like to be a mother are entirely irrelevant to the rationality of the choice to have a baby. It’s also difficult. My intuitions about a vacation spot I’ve never visited are easily ignored. But I’ve visited my own mind, lots of times, and I know it pretty well. So it’s difficult to ignore my own intuitions about making big changes in my life, especially if I believe with every fiber of my being that I know what I really want.

Say I’m 100 percent sure that I’d prefer to remain childfree, but Big Data tells me that most parents—even most parents pretty much like me—are, on average, happier than the child-free. It seems, then, that I can’t rationally choose to remain child-free. To be rational, I’m forced to replace my own personal, introspective beliefs about what I want with what the experts tell me I should want.

One day, we may know as much about our psychological states as we do about their underlying biological states. Then the choice to have a child might be as simple as the choice to take antibiotics. But what are we supposed to do in the meantime? We don’t have anything like complete psychological knowledge right now. So when it comes to transformative experiences in real life, it can seem strange to say, “don’t agonize about the choice—just rely on the data to tell you what to do.” This is because these decisions involve irreversible, life-changing choices that we normally make by carefully assessing our inner hopes and desires. Such choices often involve lifetime commitments and irreversibly change how we experience the rest of our lives—and right now, psychology and social science lack definitive, clear answers about what, exactly, we should do. Meanwhile, the reason we introspect is to make sure we truly know our own preferences when we decide, but also so that we choose in concert with not only who we really are but who we want to become.

Maybe we just have to get used to ignoring our inner selves when we make these choices. Your fascinating work on empathy suggests that we need to be much more careful about how we think about the inner lives of others, and I’d argue the same lesson applies to how we should think about our future selves. People find it reasonable to take personal leaps on the basis of so little evidence because we can’t ask them how it went until after they have jumped. Rationalization, confirmation bias, and the desire to avoid regret over irreversible actions all make people very willing to throw their past selves under the bus. But why should we prospectively think these new selves are any better? After all, the old selves, if they were still around, might find the new ones intolerable. This is why we need to pay special attention to transformative experiences. When you face a transformative choice, even if psychology can tell you what to choose, you still face an existential problem: Will you really be happier after the transformative change—or will you just be a different person?

Transformative Experience by L.A. Paul. Oxford University Press.

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