You may have heard the news: President Trump wants to buy Greenland. Even if you hadn’t seen the story until reading this, you already have some reaction, perhaps even an opinion pro or con.
Whatever your opinion is at this moment, we can learn a lot about making decisions using this intriguing story. Good decision making includes reacting wisely to your ideas and to the suggestions and pitches of other people who cross your path.
When an exciting new idea first appears to us, it’s natural to have a quick, intuitive reaction. But our reactions need to develop to further, deeper, more deliberative thought, because they can help us improve your decision-making.
My first reaction to President Trump’s desire to buy Greenland: crazy. Second reaction: maybe visionary?
Regarding others’ reactions on Twitter and elsewhere: so many people have immediate opinions, without having much knowledge about the subject matter.
Without much information, we derive our opinions based largely on who the source is – in this case, President Trump. Like or respect the man? It’s a good idea. Don’t? Dumb idea.
It’s better to hold off, think more, and learn more before forming a clear opinion. A quick, strong belief will likely stick, hurt the deliberation process, and bias or even pre-determine the eventual decision. This confirmation bias may be the most harmful of the cognitive biases.
Regarding Greenland, I made a point of holding off and thinking more about it. This provided recognition that Greenland harbours enormous natural resources, crucially affects climate change, and holds profound military importance, particular looking into the future.
Later I read that President Trump’s primary motives are access to natural resources, military advantage, and adding to his legacy. Two of the three are strategically important to the United States and the world. Decision-makers focusing on these criteria will see powerful ‘buy’ signals; others will worry about implications for the planet, including climate change and geopolitics.
Reading further, I learned that Denmark says Greenland is not for sale (Greenland is an autonomous Danish dependent territory). So maybe Trump’s idea is impossible – or is it just an assumption but not a fact that Greenland can never be somehow ‘acquired’? Leaders often make decisions that go badly wrong because an important assumption proves to be mistaken.
I learned too that Greenlanders may or may not decide to move towards complete independence from Denmark. In other words, the future of Greenland is up to Greenlanders, although this is likely not a unanimous opinion. What ethical frameworks and considerations will decision-makers use and not use if they pursue the idea further?
Next, I learned of the nuclear waste buried beneath the melting Greenland ice. With added power comes added responsibility.
If a black-swan (highly unlikely and extreme) scenario develops, in which some country finds a way and achieves governance over Greenland, what happens next? It depends on the competence and values of leaders. And what happens when the next round of new leaders take power?
Always, there are questions worth asking, and it’s worth seeking answers that are as valid as possible in uncertain and ever-changing circumstances.
It is fun and perhaps exciting to think about President Trump’s Greenland dream. More importantly, the lessons pertain always and forever to important decisions. Don’t draw quick ‘flash’ opinions, or at least not strong ones that become entrenched. Think and learn more about upsides, risks, uncertainties, and ethical implications. And use a thoughtful decision-making process – driven by strategic considerations more than by egoistic opinion; by facts, evidence, and input from diverse, relevant stakeholders; and by a thorough evaluation of pros and cons, costs and benefits, short-term and long-term.
Thomas Bateman is Professor Emeritus with the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia. Professor Bateman’s interest lies within field is organisational behaviour.