The Role of Authorities in Decisions

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In order to understand the role of authorities in our decision making, let’s return for a moment to my decision as a college student to follow my father into the economics profession. As mentioned previously, when I decided to study economics, I had no idea what an economist could expect to earn and whether studying economics posed a profitable investment decision. This implies that my decision was not entirely rational in the sense that I exhaustively studied the alternative to studying economics and chose the field yielding the highest prospective salary. What I knew was that my father had studied economics and was able to earn a living.

Notice the high level of uncertainty that I confronted in making this life-changing decision of a career. Those of you who have read my memoir, Called Along the Way, probably recall that I made this decision under duress—I had labored anxiously for months without direction and on the morning that I made this decision I had a bad hangover. These are not ideal conditions for making major life decisions and bring to mind the circumstances facing the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Still, I took it on faith that if I followed my father into the economics profession, I would earn a similar income and be able to support a family. In a formal sense, I did not (and perhaps could not) make a rational decision based on current expected earnings in the economics profession.

Rationality of Decisions Based on Authority

Two important points can be made about my decision to study economics.

The first point is that most decisions are made within a context of high levels of uncertainty. Uncertainty motivates the gathering of additional information. Because information is costly and time-consuming, the search process is often constrained by the limits of our budget (both money and time). When no limit is imposed, analysis paralysis can arise if we have trouble making decisions.

The second point is that the use of authorities in the decision process provides an obvious short-cut to searching for more information. While some may not languish over decisions but simply adopt the advice of others to avoid the anxiety of decision making, this was not a motivator for me. I knew that if I studied economics, my father could advise on what to do and what not to do along the way, reducing my decision risk. In a sense, I became an informal apprentice to my father. Being an apprentice therefore not only cut my search costs in making the initial decision, but also the prospective costs in making future career decisions.

If I chose another field to study, I could have gotten the same benefits by seeking out mentors to guide through difficult decisions along the way. In fact, when I moved in my career to finance, I did exactly that. Although I changed positions repeatedly in my government career, I always sought mentors to guide me in my career.

Christ as Mentor

In a very real sense, placing our faith in God is analogous to taking Christ as our mentor. When we come to faith, our information set is minimal, but we know that God is good and is trustworthy. By trusting God and taking Christ as our guide, we can avoid many of the pitfalls that come with inexperience as decision makers in this life.

But there is one other important point to make. As Christians, we know that the future is in Christ. Knowing the end of the story reduces the uncertainty that we face in this life. Thus, we not only benefit from the guidance of our mentor, he reduces our uncertainty. It is like we already have tomorrow’s newspaper and know today which stock will go up tomorrow.

The Role of Authorities in Decisions

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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1 Comment

  1. When I was growing up my parents expected I would go to college and become a teacher. For a middle class young woman at that time there were 3 choices…teacher, nurse, secretary…or wife if you were fortunate enough to be chosen. Times have changed! But yes, God needs to be the advisor in such decisions.

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