Faced with a morally ambiguous choice, you are sometimes torn between conflicting motivations. And it can get to the point where you can’t really figure out which one is really driving you. Are you calling your old girlfriend because only she can give you the right advice about your sick cat, or because you just want to hear her voice? Are you recommending your colleague for the committee because he’s the right guy for the job or because you don’t want to do it yourself? Do you write a daily blog because it’s a great way to hash out new ideas or because you just love the attention?

From a conventional point of view its hard to understand how we could doubt our own motivations. At the moment of decision we can articulate at a conscious level what the right objective is. (If not, then on what basis would we have to be suspicious of ourselves?) And we should evaluate all the possible consequences of the action that tempts us in light of that objective and make the best choice.

So self-doubt is a smoking gun showing that this conventional framework omits an important friction. Here’s my theory what that friction is.

Information comes in millions of tiny pieces over time. It is beyond our memory and our conscious capacity to recall and assemble all of those data when called upon to make a decision that relies on it. Instead we discard the details and just store summary statistics. When it comes time to make a decision, the memory division of our decision-making apparatus steps up and presents the relevant summary statistics.

The instinctive feeling that “I should do X” is what it feels like when the reported summary statistics point in favor of X. It has an instinctive quality because it is entirely pre-conscious. Conscious deliberation begins only after that initial inclination is formed.

At that stage your task is to verify whether the proposed course of action is consistent with your current motivation and the specific details of the situation you find yourself in. But that decision is necessarily made with limited information because you only have the summary statistics to go on.

Any divergence between your present frame of mind and the frame of mind that you were in when you recorded and stored those summary statistics can give you cause for doubting your instincts.

That suggests an interesting behavioral framework. The decision maker is composed of two agents, an Advisor and a Decider. The Advisor has all of the information about the payoffs to different actions and he makes recommendations to the Decider who then takes an action. The friction is that the Advisor and Decider’s preferences are different and the difference fluctuates over time. Thus, at any point in time the Decider must resolve a conflict between his own objective and the unknown objective of the Advisor.

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