Descartes Square: A Popular Decision Making Technique

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

Written by Mariia Kogan

We are taught to make decisions from the first days of our lives. From simple decisions about what to eat or what to wear to difficult ones such as choosing the university to study at, the company to work for, or the person to live with.

We use our life experiences, opinions and different attitudes and are constantly reflecting on the effectiveness of our previous and future choices. Moreover, the older we get, the more responsible we have to be for every decision we make because it can influence our relationships, financial situation, position in society and so on. For example, if you have your own business, you will have to develop your decision-making skills to make better decisions about choosing the best suppliers and which clients to target. So we understand the importance of making the right decision, so the next question is: what is the best way to go about it?

To start off, psychologists insist that all decisions should be made consciously; with minimum impact on emotions and other people. One of the most popular techniques is to make a list of pros and cons and then just to count them to find the biggest number of points. This technique is quite easy and rather useful, but it does not show all the options connected with the doubtful decision. A better option would be to consider the use of the so-called “Descartes Square” model, which is regarded as probably one of the best decision-making tools.

“Descartes square” was suggested by Rene Descartes. He was a famous French philosopher, engineer, mathematician and founder of algebraic symbols and analytic geometry. He is also known as an author of the philosophical method of radical doubt. One of his most famous observations ‘I think, therefore I am’ questions everything except his own existence.

His “square” method helps to understand the consequences of any choice. It is designed to make us think and record everything on the paper, using certain techniques.

It is based on four simple questions:

  1. What if this happens?

  2. What if this doesn’t happen?

  3. What will happen if this happens?

  4. What won’t happen if this doesn’t happen?

So – how to use it in practice?

You will need a piece of paper, a pen or a pencil. Divide your paper into four squares with one question in each and start answering these questions according to your problem. Let’s consider a speculative problem, such as trying to make a decision about changing a pathway for Business Management student. We will assume that he or she has been studying Business Management with Economics for several months and then realised that he or she would like to change his pathway to HR. Let’s answer questions from “Descartes square” together.

  1. What if this happens?

– I will specialise on social sciences, which I realised I like more

– Probably I will be paid less compared with my salary if I was to stay on my Economic pathway

– I will have to write a lot of essays

2. What if this doesn’t happen? What if I don’t change my pathway from Economics to HR?

– I will still have to do a lot of mathematics and accounting, which I don’t like

– I will dislike my studying and future profession

– I will be unhappy with the feeling that I am not in my place

3. What will happen if this happens? What will happen if I change my pathway from Economics to HR?

– I will have to carry on with the material my group mates already studied

– My parents will be unhappy with my choice

– All the hours spent on complicated economic theory will be spent for nothing

4. What won’t happen if this doesn’t happen? What won’t happen if I don’t change my pathway from Economics to HR?

– I won’t study the subjects I like

– I won’t get rid of mathematics which I don’t understand

– I won’t win the competition with my more experienced colleagues

As you can see, these questions help to clarify the possible consequences of such decisions and can be very adaptable. It is really important to ask the question correctly and to understand it. Moreover, you shouldn’t avoid using paper and pen because you are more likely to forget your response if you ask these questions mentally.

I hope that this model will help you in decision-making. I would suggest to not only focus only on this technic, research for more and find out which best suits you.

I wish you only successful choices!

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