Beware of Franklin’s Gambit when Making Decisions

by | Sep 16, 2022


Benjamin Franklin is famous for many things, including inventing the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin Stove. Plus, he was the only Founding Father to sign all four of the key documents establishing the U.S.: the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Treaty of Alliance with France (1778), the Treaty of Paris establishing peace with Great Britain (1783) and the U.S. Constitution (1787).

He also pioneered the use of the pros and cons list to aid in decision-making. But he also recognized that we use rationalizations like pros and cons lists to justify the decisions we’ve already made. Here’s what he said about how decisions really get made: “How convenient it is to be a reasonable creature since it enables one to make or find a reason for whatever one has a mind to do.”

In other words, Franklin recognized that our decisions are often made by gut feelings or instinct — often subconsciously — and then our brain rationalizes these decisions.

Economist John Kay calls this “Franklin’s Gambit” which is “the process of making or finding a reason for what one already has a mind to do.” John Kay realized that this way of decision-making was rampant in business when he ran an economic consulting firm and realized that his customers didn’t really use his firm’s models for their decision-making. Instead, “they used them internally or externally to justify decisions that they had already made.”

This notion is similar to the analogy social psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses to describe how we make view the world and make decisions. According to Prof. Haidt, our minds are divided “like a rider on an elephant” and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. In this model, the elephant represents our emotions and intuition and the rider is our strategic reasoning. This metaphor illustrates the concept that our beliefs and views of the world are largely subconscious and deeply ingrained. Our intuition and emotions can be thought of as our elephant. Our reasoning serves our intuition, meaning that our conscious, reasoning mind uses its resources and energy to justify and explain why we believe what we believe. The rider has little or no control over the elephant.

What to do? Keep Franklin’s Gambit in mind when you make decisions. Are you really using your rational brain to make the decision? Or to justify what your gut has already decided?


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