Sounds Like a Personal Problem

To Be, Or Not To Be: Pro/Con Decision Making


I know an artist whose medium is list making. There books and websites for list making. I’m told that lists are the boon of organized people, of accomplished people, of productive people. Life has the potential for a lot of lists, because lists are good for a lot of things. Things like groceries, or suggested reading, or obscure trivia… I’ve been told that lists are also good for decision making. As someone who is both indecisive to the nth degree and a perfectionist to the very last, decision making weighs quite heavily on me. I devote intense thought to minuet things, like whether or not to buy my favorite season of my favorite show on DVD* (What if I don’t watch it? Is it a waste of money? What if it’s not as good when I re-watch? What if I find it cheaper after I’ve paid for it? What if it gets damaged when it’s being shipped?). Decisions which seem easy for others are usually not easy for me.

Enter the pro-con list. I’m sure you’ve seen them (perhaps even constructed one yourself), two neat columns, one labeled ‘Pro,’ the other ‘Con,’ with a corresponding list of positives and negatives, perhaps with sub-points, or footnotes (okay, so maybe regular people don’t make lists with footnotes). The idea is that a winner will present itself through the list making, where the most pros (or in some cases, the least cons) means the best decision. I’ve recently found myself in a position that seems to require the making of pro-con lists, and as with any new period in my life, I look to pop culture first. Rory Gilmore’s college selection pro-con lists (Gilmore Girls “A Tale of Poes and Fire”) is one of the most notable use of list making I’ve come across. 

LUKE: What’s with the lists?

LORELAI: You ready? My Rory, our Rory, Stars Hollows’ Rory, got into Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

LUKE: What’s with all the lists?

LORELAI: That’s how we make important decisions. You know that.

LUKE: You know what its going to be: Harvard.

RORY: Probably.

LORELAI: But not necessarily.

LUKE: But Harvard’s all you’ve talked about for years.

LORELAI: Well, who knew she’d be wanted by everyone?

LUKE: Hey — which school teaches how to make an important life decision without doing a stupid pro/con list? Whichever one it is, add it to the pro column.

LORELAI: Do not mock the scientificity of our selection process.

For the entire episode Lorelai and Rory list the various pros and cons for each institution. While everyone in town assures Rory that the lists are unnecessary, she continues to list none the less. Anything and everything the girls can think of goes down on paper. Here’s the thing about lists— they can be as long as you want them to be, going on as long as you’re prepared to make them.This might make for comprehensive lists, but not necessarily useful ones. In order for a list to mean anything, sooner or later it has to be finished so you can look back on it and make a decision. But how do you know when a list is done? While pro-con lists are supposed to give you perspective and insight, what actually makes it down on the page may not be helpful at all. You can make anything fit on a pro-con list if you try hard enough.

LORELAI: Ooh, a big pro for Yale: They have 1100 members on their maintenance staff. Clean, clean, clean.

RORY: All three of these places probably have the same number.

LORELAI: But Yale must be crowing about it for some reason. Princeton might only have two.

RORY: Two? You think there are two guys cleaning all of Princeton?

LORELAI: Write “Princeton’s stinking filthy” in big letters.

Not to discredit the Yale maintenance staff, but the relevance it had in relation to Rory’s college education was infinitesimal, if any. Does it really count as a ‘pro’? We can tip lists any way we want by including things that don’t really matter, or downplaying the importance of truly factorial factors. This kind of list inflation doesn’t just mean lopsided lists, it can mean pro-con stalemates too.

Of all the types of lists, pro-con lists are the most deceptive because they seem so wholly logical and helpful. I don’t want to suggest that pro-con lists are useless or that people who like them are somehow wrong, but perhaps relying on a list to make a decision isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There is a lot a list can’t tell you.  Not everything can be neatly relegated to a column on a list. Even things that can be relegated to a column don’t always add up neatly— what takes up one spot on a pro-con list might actually deserve 10. Surely Harvard’s smaller class sizes were more relevant to Rory than the size of Princeton’s maintenance staff. And what about the unquantifiable? The decision to stay or go, to be a Crimson or a Bulldog, to love or let go, is not as simple as paper or plastic, as spearmint or wintergreen, as Coke or Pepsi, Autobots or Decepticons. The big decisions, the ones that matter most, are rife with emotional content, with history but also potential. How can a list help us then? Sometimes the best decision is not the one that comes out with the most in the pro column, no matter how much we might like it to be. 

There are a lot of things lists are good for, but I’m not sure decision making is one of those.


*Fringe Season 3, if you were wondering. 


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