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Do You Know About Buridan’s Ass? If not, you should!

“A hungry donkey enters a barn in search of food. This particular donkey happens to be a fairly rational, logical donkey.

Much to his delight, he discovers two identical haystacks, each on the opposite ends of the barn. They are equal distances from him, and look and smell the same.

The donkey stands in the middle of the barn between the two piles of hay. He cannot reason which mound of hay is superior to the other, which one he would enjoy the most even though he is hungry.

Hours go by, and then days, but he still can’t make up his mind. Unable to decide, the donkey eventually becomes too weak to move and starves to death.”

This short parable comes from the French logician and philosopher Jean Buridan and so the story is known as “Buridan’s Ass.” It is a parable that teaches us that reason bleached of emotion starves us. Rational thinking alone does not give us a reason to live, to get up in the morning, to improve the world, or to help others in need.

Reason is a powerful tool to accomplish ends but only when it is powered by our emotions. The neurologist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated that when people who suffer brain injuries that destroy their capacity to experience emotions, their decisions are disastrous. Reason alone, unaided by emotion and purpose, is a poor compass to navigate the world.

The moral of the donkey’s dilemma is this: not deciding has consequences! Having options can be a blessing or a curse. Had the donkey found only one haystack inside the barn, there would have been no decision to make. He most likely wouldn’t have starved to death.

But life isn’t simple. We are inundated with eleven million bits of information every second – some of it relevant, most of it not. We are not confronted with a lack of options and decisions. We are faced with a daily dizzying abundance of them. In his book, “Paradox of Choice, Why More is Less,” psychologist Barry Schwartz says, “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”

Six Steps to Avoid the Donkey’s Dilemma

1. Identify the decision you need to make.

2. Use your rational mind to determine the facts.

3. Use your emotional mind to help evaluate the facts – how you feel about them.

4. Pause in the gap between the stimulus and your response – how long is up to you.

5. Create a mental image of the emotions you will be experiencing after the decision.

6. Use that mental image to take action!

Now you know about Buridan’s Ass. Ready to start making some decisions? I hope so because only you can take action!


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