Dear Jumbo: When 2=4

The other day, I was listening to a senior friend’s conundrum about two conflicting classes that she really wanted to take. One was an outdoor field trip class. She liked the professor and knew that she would do well in the class. The other was an advanced seminar for graduate students taught by a well-known professor who specifically recommended that she take it. 

She had been agonizing over this for a few days now. It was her last semester at Tufts, so it was probably not a good idea to take a difficult class, but turning down that recommended advanced seminar seemed like a big blow to her pride. Yet, she imagined taking the seminar and thinking, “What if I had taken the other class?” It was a classic case of FOMO.

We now know that we humans are hardly as rational as the homo economicus from EC-5. Our decision making is always tangled with a lot of emotions. Ignoring these feelings is like ignoring some data points to make the best fit curve look like a straight line. It is bad science, and it does not work. 

I shared with my friend two lessons I constantly remind myself about making decisions.

The first lesson is that whenever we think we have to pick either of the two choices, there are actually four choices, including doing none and doing both. In psychology, this phenomenon is called “narrow framing.”

“Hold on, I don’t want to do none, and I cannot do both.”

I hear you. Let me continue with my friend’s story.

I asked her, “What if you could do neither?” She responded, much to our surprise, “Then I’d take a writing class and my capstone and a math class, and I’d have so much fun.” I told her, “I want you to know that your eyes were sparkling as you were telling me this.”

Then I asked her, “What if you could do both? What if the timing of the two classes don’t overlap?” She responded with a clear downer: “Then I’d only take those two classes and my capstone, drop my math minor and put all my time and energy into them.” The contrast between the two responses was like Christmas festivity vs. Doomsday bleakness. Ironically, the best and the worst case scenarios seemed reversed.

The second lesson is that often, it is not a big decision but rather a series of small choices. For example, the first choice she can make is if she is going to attend the first field trip class. Then she can see how it goes and make another choice if she wants to go to the second seminar class. As a graduating senior, this thought is comforting. Often, the anxiety-inducing question of “What are you going to do after graduation?” does not mean “What are you going to do with your life?” but rather simply, “What are you going to do in June?”

On another note, to whoever sent me the note through the Dear Jumbo form that reads, “Love, as a process and a feeling, has evolved in ways beyond [what] my ‘freshman’ self could ever imagine.” I agree. Thanks a lot for sharing, and keep them coming here: bit.ly/dearJumbo.


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