How Ben Franklin Made a Decision-Making Formula Out of Pros and Cons
We all need to make decisions in life. Some are of little consequence, such as deciding what color shirt to wear to a friend’s party.
However, other decisions can sometimes be stressful, such as choosing a career, voting for the right candidate, what car to buy, what town to move to when relocating, maybe even where to take the wife and kids on vacation.
The pros and cons that we should be considering, when making difficult decisions, are not all in our mind at once and therefore it’s difficult to reason with our emotion and determine which route to take. The absence of both sides of an argument causes confusion and uncertainty.
When we only are consciously mindful of one side of the case, we most likely will end up choosing the wrong option. For this reason, it’s important to visualize all options, both pro and con, simultaneously.
Every choice we made in the past has brought us to the exact place where we are now–physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. If we have too many options to choose from, then we need a logical method of analyzing and organizing them that will help with making plans.
Ben Franklin had a solution. He found a way to help make difficult decisions by creating a list of pros and cons. This can also be thought of as a balance sheet because he would apply a weight to each item for consideration.
I learned this from reading his personal letters1 that were published by Leonard W. Labaree (editor) in 1956.
Franklin didn't have an easy life. It was full of conflicts as was evident with his commitment issues and his chasing after women. I’ll briefly talk about that after showing you two methods of listing pros and cons.
The first is a simple method that most people use. The second is a detailed technique that Franklin used to help make difficult decisions with the conflicts he had in his life.
Simple Formula for Making Decisions
Make a list in two columns. One column contains all the pros and the other contains all the cons. This strategy has two advantages:
- You can visually see that one column ends up longer than the other, so it becomes obvious that either the pros win over the cons or the other way around.
- If the two columns are pretty much the same length, the list will still help you become more familiar with the good and the bad among the available options.
Clarity is so important in order to decide how you want to handle things or which path in life you wish to follow.
This helps avoid procrastination, which usually is due to a failure to understand the outcome of various options. When one does not know what to expect, they tend to do nothing.
Making lists provides a great benefit. It helps with making informed decisions, and the visual clarity achieved from the lists brings things into focus.
When you make the effort to write down all the pros and cons, you are actually forcing your brain to realize all the positive and negative aspects of the decision you are having difficulty with. That gives you the power to take action in the right direction!
Analyzing pros and cons may also help with commitment issues. It’s hard to make a commitment to something or to someone when you don’t have a good idea of the positive and negative issues. Making a list such as this brings it visually in focus.
Ben Franklin’s Decision-Making Method and Techniques
Franklin clearly explained the problem we all have with decision-making. I have my own way of explaining it based on what I learned from studying his methods.
Franklin’s technique was to make two lists side by side in two columns on a sheet of paper. He would list the pros in one column and the cons in the other column.
For many of us, that list may suffice to help visualize both sides of a decision. However, a large list might be too overwhelming to consider and it may leave one with more confusion.
Ben solved that problem, and made the list much more enlightening, by applying an algorithmic technique to the process:
- Once he completed the list, he would analyze it and apply estimated weights to each item.
- Then he would strike out two items with the same weights.
- He continued by removing from the list all items where one pro would equal in weight two cons. That eliminated three items.
- Then he extended this in reverse by removing all items where two cons equal three pros. That’s five more items eliminated.
This process reduces the list to a manageable size and only leaves the most important items to consider for making the ultimate decision.
Did Ben Franklin Have Commitment Phobia?
Did Ben Franklin have commitment issues with getting married? Maybe he used his method of listing pros and cons to make this decision too.
He dated Deborah Read while she was married to another man. Later, when her husband passed away, he settled down in a common-law marriage with her. They never officially married. She had a child from her marriage, and she and Ben had two children of their own.
The first of the two children they had together, Francis Folger Franklin, died of smallpox. The second, Sarah Franklin, took care of her father in his old age. It was good he had her there. She was a dedicated daughter.
I would not say Ben had a commitment problem. He probably analyzed the pros and cons of the relationship, with his balanced list technique, and settled on keeping it as a common-law marriage.
To him it obviously made no difference. He had a close family and was a decent man with the way he handled all the trials and tribulations of his life, such as with the loss of his first child.
Ben Franklin had a very interesting life, although a difficult one. I can see how he came up with the idea of applying pros and cons to his thought process to make decisions. I'm sure that he found it to be an easy way to analyze the options available in his life.
1. Benjamin Franklin, Mr. Franklin: A Selection from His Personal Letters, Editor: Leonard W. Labaree, (Yale University Press, 1956)
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© 2010 Glenn Stok