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Can we control our choices?

I chose to write this article because I have long been aware that many clients make temporary or definitive choices that they sometimes find difficult to explain and we often find ourselves having to deconstruct elements that were based on perceptions, beliefs, etc., revealing a lack of reflection. As we will see, there are many explanations for this phenomenon. Education is the first of them, thinking, analyzing and reflecting is learned, and on the other hand, the brain naturally tends to make instinctive choices.

I’ll stop you right here, our relationship to life is not only commercial, fortunately, I won’t deal with this issue from a marketing or only influence point of view, because the act of buying is a specific process that is not at all the main point here and because a choice involves emotions, therefore they are inevitably influenced. I have decided to approach the question of choice in its globality and without compartmentalizing the approach in the manner of economics, psychology or philosophy, which would be far too reductive for such a complex phenomenon for which having indisputable proofs seems impossible. It is for me totally absurd, whatever the approach, to want to normalize, categorize or predict a choice according to predefined parameters or a priori consensual scale of value, each individual having his own history, education, values which affect his emotions and evaluation criteria. This should not necessarily be taken as irrationality, since a choice is by nature subjective. Nor should we forget the great disparities in the analytical or reflective capacity of individuals, as can be shown by an IQ test, even if this is not totally representative.

We are continually led to make choices, which in everyday life are more or less important, and almost automatic, as has been shown by cognitive psychology research. There are also less trivial choices with important repercussions or costly personal investments, such as choosing to adopt a dog or buy a new car.

During a career coaching, the importance and impact of the choices that will be made lead one to wonder even more.

Faced with the question of choice, the individual is perpetually confronted with questions such as what is the best choice? Did I make the right choice? How can I be sure that it is the right choice? How can I make the right choice?

Or by taking more distance on this problematic task:

Isn’t a choice simply a matter of compromise? Can we consider that there is an ideal choice?

We can, of course, approach such a subject from several angles, two in particular that come immediately to mind, the philosophical angle which would try to answer all the above questions, and the practical angle i.e., what can I do to make an intelligent rational choice?

A rational choice means to make a choice of reason which for the larousse dictionary means: the faculty proper to man, by which he can know, judge and conduct himself according to principles: The reason considered by opposition to the instinct.

I will first define what it is and then I will focus on the pragmatic aspect, because I think that it will be beneficial for the reader, even the informed one, and this will be the subject of a second specific article.

I differentiate between two main families of choices, even if we could perhaps start to break down the problem according to context, cultures, etc., I will try to keep it simple and accessible without overcomplicating something that is not of fundamental interest in the context of this article, because it is not a matter of understanding exactly what is at play in making a choice, scientific research is still trying to do that, but rather of defining how to make an intelligent and sensible choice and to do that, you need to know some principles.

We can dissociate two types of choices.

We have the choices:

—Dictated by emotion and whose rationality is unconscious or little worked by the conscience.

—Dictated by emotion AND reason.


Our choices are naturally derived from our emotions


I consider that a purely emotional choice is no longer a good choice, even when it comes to surviving. The following examples are from real life:

  • I think of the individual who dies after a fight over a car space in a parking lot.
  • I think of the individual who dies trying to pull his daughter out of the bathtub while she is electrocuted by her cell phone that fell into the water.

Media reports are full of examples of individuals who have made inappropriate emotional choices.

I will not attempt to detail the possible causes. The nature of a pure emotional choice has a distant origin and has been developed and refined by the brain over millions of years to ensure human survival in conditions and contexts that have nothing to do with our current social and technological life. A reality that many individuals do not manage to apprehend in all its globality and complexity, or even simply lack knowledge of the mechanical, physical or physiological implications of the technologies and tools used on a daily basis and appropriate responses to situations that may arise. Caught up in the action, in front of the urgency of a situation, the reasoning and the speed of reflection are of no help to prevent the error. Adaptation has not been able to do its work, because it is slow, while these last 300 years have profoundly changed human life.

Our emotional system could not adapt in such a short time.

We are emotionally handicapped in relation to the world in which we live. Others are also socially handicapped, unable to adapt to the complexity of society, in part or in whole.

This is to be associated with the lack of scientific knowledge of the average individual, of the system to which he belongs.

In short, our primitive brain at the emotional level must evolve and take into account a complex, changing world, of which it knows little and without the necessary knowledge to react as it has been accustomed to do, that is to say in the immediacy, with relevance.

Science has shed some interesting light on the cognitive phenomena of decision-making. To make a long story short, recent studies in cognitive psychology have shown that the brain tends to make choices based on emotion, very quickly, and that reason does not intervene, or intervenes very little and often unconsciously, in many everyday choices.


A choice of reason, under control of emotions.


We are victims of our emotions, influenced by far too many things that most of us are not even aware of on a daily basis and that we cannot control, even when, like me, you are closely interested in these issues, and if you were not convinced, I invite you to remember the fifty or so different cognitive biases that influence emotions, reasoning, representations and beliefs, among others.

In this context, it is not difficult to consider that even a rational choice is biased.

If one were to define a rational choice as an ideal or perfect choice, then it would be necessary, a priori, for the individual to have all the information necessary for his choice and to have understood it perfectly, for this information to be true and validated by a meta-analysis (the highest level of scientific proof/validation) and for this information to be of such a nature that it could not be called into question by subsequent discoveries. This last point is automatically problematic for many works in the social sciences and humanities. It is therefore also necessary to have the assurance that this choice has not been influenced and that no bias has come to alter it.

I think you’ve figured out that it’s perfectly impossible.

Therefore, making a choice is a compromise, a preferred option over another one, the consequences of which are probably uncertain and we have to live with it.

An ideal, perfect, objective, rational choice is not something that can be achieved by the human brain.

However, even though in some contexts the consequences may be uncertain and a choice may be considered to involve a degree of risk, making a reasoned choice is choosing consequences.

Since it is impossible to grasp all the implications and consequences, one may even wonder whether the ideal choice is a realistic notion.

Many sociologists, psychologists and philosophers have been studying this question for a long time and there are, of course, important disparities in the ways of approaching the problem and I must propose here a collection of them for the reader in the form of a quotation, quite long since it is an article which traces the authors who are for and against on the question of the real rationality of choices. I’m citing only one source because to be honest I’m lazy right now and it’s a good one. I only cite one source because, to be honest, I’m lazy and it’s a source that fairly accurately reflects diverse opinions on certain aspects of the issue.

This is a French article, titles and description have been traduced.

Rational choice: the pros and cons (no date) Humanities. Available online: (accessed: February 26, 2022).


“Pros: George C. Homans (1910–1989), American sociologist, applied the principles of neoclassical economics and behaviorist psychology to the analysis of social facts. His theory of ‘social exchange’ made him one of the first propagators of the theory of rational choice in the social sciences (Social Behavior: It’s elementary forms. Under the general editorship of Robert K. Merton, 1961)

Herbert A. Simon (1916–2001), a psychologist and sociologist specializing in systems, developed a general science of decision-making. Among other things, he developed the notion of ‘bounded rationality’, which takes into account the fact that our decisions are not perfect, but limited by the information available to us. H. A. Simon contributed to exporting the rational choice model to political and social sciences, but he made its use more complex.

Pros: Gary Becker, born in 1930, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992, has adapted the tools of neoclassical microeconomics (postulate of the rational actor) to activities that are not part of the market: family (having children, divorce), delinquency, drug addiction, etc. His theory of human capital (1964) makes him an advocate of rational choice.

Pros: Stephen Levitt, born in 1967, is a professor of economics in Chicago. A specialist in microeconomics (individual decisions), he published in 2005, with Steve Dubner, a book (Freakonomics) in which he shows the calculations underlying all sorts of crazy facts, such as cheating in Sumo wrestling, in an orientation close to that of Gary Becker. Tim Harford, born in 1973, is also a proponent of ‘freak economics’ (The Logic of Life, 2009).

Against: Daniel Kahneman, born in 1934 and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, and Amos Tversky (1937–1996), a Stanford psychologist, have collaborated for more than twenty years on experimental research into the heuristics and cognitive biases that affect our choices and often make them less than rational. Their prospect theory (1979) turns its back on the theory of rational choice. Together with Richard Thaler, born in 1945, they are considered the founders of behavioral (or experimental) economics.

Against: Raymond Boudon, born in 1934, professor of sociology at the Sorbonne, has developed in his work the idea that the theory of the rational actor is incapable of describing human action in general. The individual has good reasons to act, but these reasons are diverse and subjective. Moreover, the aggregation of individual actions can produce ‘perverse effects’ (Raisons. Bonnes raisons, 2003).

Cons: Jon Elster, a Norwegian philosopher born in 1940, has devoted most of his work to exploring the difficulties we have in acting according to clear preferences. He has analyzed the tactics we use to fight against the weakness of our will. According to him, the human actor is often unable to decide between two preferences (Irrationality, 2010).

Cons: Dan Ariely, born in 1967, teaches at Duke University. A mathematician and psychologist, he then turned to experimental economics. Considering all sorts of subjects from ordinary life, such as having a coffee at Starbuck’s, he shows that our choices constantly violate pure rationality, but also that our drifts are predictable (It’s [really?] me who decides, 2008). ”


I think I have covered the main points of what I think needs to be considered without going into too much detail, and I will leave the reader with the range of opinions of some sociologists and psychologists who have looked at the question from a certain angle, because far be it from me to go into detail on a subject on which it is difficult to consider being able to reach anything other than an imprecise and fluctuating representation depending on the context or a point of view.

If you have a choice to make and need some help with a framework, please read my article on How to make a more rational choice?


Pessiglione, Mathias. « Décision et rationalité : un sujet indiscipliné », Cités, vol. 60, no. 4, 2014, pp. 29-41.

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