A very smart woman I know chose not to get vaccinated. She had already been infected with Covid and reasoned that she now had the necessary antibodies. Now she complains that without a vaccination card, businesses may bar her from entry, punishing her because of her choice not to vaccinate. She could have chosen the rewards of vaccination to avoid denunciation, exclusion, and isolation. Yet, human beings don’t always apply simple, studied logic to real-life choices, even to avoid the penalties.
Choices are set out before us for good and for bad. These choices are particularly vexing when it comes to our health. Eat the celery or eat the cake? Get the vaccine or go without? It all seems simple until we hesitate just long enough to incorporate personal predilections into the process.
Parshat Reeh begins with a simple choice and admonition. “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse; blessings if you obey the commandments . . . curse if you do not obey.” I hope that people will choose the path of blessings. All they have to do is obey the commandments. Yet, people make the wrong choices. Were it otherwise, Moses would not even present the curses to us!
Why do we make the wrong choices? Why eat the cake? Why not take the vaccine? There are two answers to explore – personal choice and heuristic thinking.
In a news report, I watched a gaggle of medical professionals declared that they were not convinced that the vaccine was safe. Rather than choose caution they asserted personal privilege. One person adapted the pro-choice slogan: “my body, my choice.” Americans believe so strongly in personal freedom, many are willing to wager or sacrifice their lives for that conviction.
The other impediment to choosing blessings is heuristic thinking. Our desires, biases, and fears override our ability to make propitious choices. We fail to make the best decisions because the process gets muddied with our own emotional, irrational muck.
Famed Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky researched biases in decision-making. Their research focused on heuristic technique, an approach to problem-solving that is not optimal, perfect, or rational, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal or approximation. Their Nobel Prize-winning contribution, prospect theory, poured real, irrational, only human behavior into the process of decision making, enabling a much more powerful prediction of how individuals really choose between risky options.
When making choices involving risk to health, most will pick the blessing of health, the responsible choice. As President Biden reminded us, “with freedom comes responsibility.” Moreover, the healthy decision-maker will take time to dismiss desires, biases, and fears that cloud decision-making. The curse of a bad choice may harm you and others around you.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame