Hesitation Fallacy

May 19, 2022

As an anxious person, there are so many things to give me pause before doing any action. I am often hesitating under the guise of caution, i.e. when reaching out to a friend, when deciding to share something vulnerable, when introducing myself to someone new. At what point does caution turn into unreasonable fear?

While careful hesitation is healthy, when it starts to come from the belief that waiting and ruminating will always produce more knowledge about a situation, it can become unreasonable.

I noticed I was falling into this trap while telling my friend, “I feel bad about hurting [someone] by acting without knowing what I wanted.” My friend replied with, “But how could you know if you really wanted it beforehand?” It was such a simple recognition of a fallacy. My mother would point out the exact same thing to me as a child when I refused to try a new food: “How can you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it?” Experience is not the type of thing you can just pre-figure out.

Along with being almost always necessary, it is also faster and more accurate to test by experience (induction) rather than solely by knowledge (deduction).

For example, after a lot of reflection and thought experiments, I once decided I wanted to pursue teaching. Many of the people I looked up to were my teachers, and I wanted to have impact on individual lives in the way that my life was impacted by my education. I even had my mind set on grad school so that I could become a professor, and started planning curriculums for fun and reading textbooks about education. It came as a shock then when I started to do small-scale mentoring and teaching that I hated it: I dreaded each subsequent meeting. Why did the role I thought was so perfect for me feel like such an uphill battle?

I realized I had chosen this path for myself based on the wrong data. I had thought too much about what I wanted to be like (what I admired, what I desired), and too little about what I like doing (what has felt right in my past experience, what is enjoyable to me even when it’s difficult). For teaching, I’ve had several experiences throughout high school and college that might’ve indicated to me that it’s something I wouldn’t easily enjoy, even if I worked to get better at it. My experience of this activity gave me so much more signal (and more quickly) than any of the abstract thinking I had done toward it.

Another example is this blog. I’ve found that as I brainstorm each week about what I would like to write, I’ve been gravitating toward topics around aesthetics. This was a pleasant surprise! The open-endedness of the structure (I just write about what I’m interested in every 1-2 weeks) allowed me to test by experience. There were some topics that sounded interesting in theory but that I didn’t feel were worth the energy to flesh out, and there were other topics that I wouldn’t have thought could take up a whole post but that I discovered are exciting for me to write about. Throughout the process of writing (doing instead of planning/predicting) I’ve been able to learn about my actual interests by simply noticing what gets written.

Applying this readiness to test-by-doing to interpersonal relations, which can be much more fraught with anxiety, is a way to quell the fear of rejection/incompatibility and also to more quickly gauge how a relationship is going. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:16

You will recognize them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?

A tree is best known and assessed by its fruit, and so are our experiences. The product of a social relationship could be a feeling of calm or anxiety—it would be difficult to predict beforehand which feeling will occur, since the causes are often complex and unknowable. While I’m sad for the friendships and relationships I’ve had that didn’t work, I also know that I couldn’t have predicted their failure without trying them out. Rather than being a source of regret or guilt, they are instead experiences in which an unknown became a known (and for which I am grateful).

Experience is our most reliable path toward knowledge, so we mustn’t hesitate—wallowing in uncertainty and indecision—for too long.