The example from the article has to do with goal identification, prioritization, weighting, and trade-offs.
Since 1986 the General Social Survey has asked Americans, “What is most important for a child to learn to prepare him or her for life?” For over 25 years, respondents have ranked “to think for him or herself” as their top priority by far (the other choices are to help others, to obey, to work hard, and to be well liked or popular). Sociologist Duane Alwin uses this and other data to demonstrate the steady decline of obedience as a desired quality for children in polling data through much of the twentieth century.
In our interviews with 100 parents, we asked the same question about raising children from the General Social Survey, and had respondents rank their desired qualities for their kids from a list. The majority of all parents in the interview sample, regardless of education level, say “thinking for yourself” is the quality they most desire for their children; it is, by far, the highest ranking choice for all parents.
So all parents, based on this sample, have the same goals AND they prioritize those goals in the same order 1) Think for Yourself, 2) Work Hard, 3) Obey, 4) Help Others, and 5) Be Well-Liked. That congruence of goals and priorities is pretty neat on its own.
But look at the differences between those who are college educated versus those with less than a college education. Same goals, same priorities but what a difference in weightings. (There's more detail in the original report, Culture of American Families Interview Report by Jeffrey S. Dill). For simplicity's sake, let's call this blue collar and white collar. Blue collar parents put three or four more times as much emphasis on community capital values (obedience and helping others) than do white collar parents. White collar parents value thinking for yourself nearly forty percent more than do blue collar parents. Those are some pretty spectacular differentials.
Given that most government public policies are created and implemented by white collar professionals with the greatest impact, usually, on the blue collar working class, these differences in relative weighting of priorities probably explains why so many government policies fail.
I think this data is a good example of the often underrated importance of establishing not only the fact that you have same goals in the same order of priority but also ensuring that they are weighted to roughly the same degree. What this data does not provide any illumination about but which remains a significant issue is the acceptable trade-offs for example, between working harder or helping others, between independent thinking and obedience, etc.
The second lesson from this research as it relates to decision-making is that of definitions.
We then asked all the parents in our sample what, precisely, “thinking for yourself” means to them in order to investigate why most of them value it so highly. It is clear that for some parents (28 percent of the sample), the “think for yourself” ideal is an autonomous, fulfillment-seeking, “do whatever you want” approach. Their ideal of American individualism means expressing yourself and being happy. The individual child should be the arbiter of what this happiness is and how to achieve it.I would have equated Think for Yourself as being very close to Think Critically, i.e. I equate it with a process of thinking. Clearly more people see it in moral terms (Do the Right Thing or Resist Peer Pressure) rather than in process terms.
But this was the minority view. Many other parents seem to have a different understanding of thinking for yourself.
The larger group of parents (72 percent) does not see the child as the final arbiter of good and bad or right and wrong, but rather perceives an external standard to which their children should conform. This majority falls into two related but slightly different categories. For one group (23 percent), thinking for yourself means resisting peer pressure, not following the herd, and not conforming to certain things that parents judge to be negative influences. Many other parents (49 percent) make more explicit their belief that thinking for yourself is a form of doing the right thing—the “right thing” as usually determined by the parent. In this sense, thinking for yourself, to many parents, is more an internalization of parental morality than it is a conventional understanding of autonomy and independence.
If so many people see Think for Yourself as the same as Do the Right Thing, then that begins to muddle the earlier response Help Others which you would guess might often be the Right Thing to do.
Dill is right though to point out the stark contrast between Think for Yourself as Do the Right Thing versus Do What You Want (my paraphrase of autonomous self-fulfilment).
In decision-making, goal clarification and definition are both critical steps towards efficient and effective decision-making and this research provides an example of why that is so.