The Four Paradigms of decision-making

We are living in the I-age. Or should this article start differently: You, and I, are both living in the I-age. You might have heard the phrase “There is no I in TEAM”. Some add: “But there is ME if you scramble the word”. But scrambling, of course, does not work. That would mean that “diplomacy” is the same as “mad policy”. So, since there is no I in “team”, we may conclude that the world is not a team anymore. Not sure if it ever was a team.

Albert Denmark
16 min readJul 18, 2022
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Whether it happened or not, the bible tells the tale of the Tower of Bable. In that tale, people began to work together to conspire against God. And God put it to a halt, by creating languages, so the people could not understand each other. Working together is obviously a threat to God. Just like it is to Putin (which does not mean that Putin is a god).

It’s a fact: in any time, the world has existed, groups, cities, countries, cultures, tribes, religions or whatever constellations were founded, tried to fight against each other. And often, such groups got internal fights and divided — often after a bloody war. And as long as mankind will exist, same mankind will witness more wars. I am very sorry, Nicole, but Ein Bisschen Frieden is not going to happen. Unfortunately, Mr. Lennon. Dismally, Mr. Luther King, your dream is still a dream.

And why is that? It is very easy: because most people have the illusion, that the world can be fixed by a legal system. And that’s what the world has been proclaiming for ages. Only the latter years, there seems to be a change in the point of view of many people. Oh no, not a positive change. It’ just getting worse! Read on …

Let me introduce you to the four paradigms of decision making:

1. The moralistic/ethical paradigm
2. The legal paradigm
3. The opportunistic paradigm
4. The egocentric paradigm

Let’s dig a bit deeper. But we’ll start with the second one. That is the paradigm that has reigned the world a very long time: the legal paradigm. Shortly, this is about “Am I allowed to do it?”.

The three commonly known paradigms

Imagine, you are driving your car, and you’ve come to a T-cross. You want to turn to the left, but about 600 ft. from you, a car is driving towards you. The car is driving about 50 mph. It’ll take that car about 10 seconds before he’ll reach that point, you are waiting. If you press down the speeder, and turn to the left, you will easily take that bend, and the driver in the other car will, most certainly, not bump into your car: it’ll take only one second to react, so the driver has nine seconds left to lower his speed. And since you are speeding up right after you’ve turned to the left, and you most likely will drive around 50 mph, too, in no-time. That means, that the other driver probably should take his foot from the speeder, perhaps use the brake to interrupt the cruise control, but that’d be all. You can easily, without doing harm to anyone, take that bend without waiting for that other car. What would you do?

Legally, there is no problem here. You will not get a fine, if you do. Also, your action could be opportunistic, or even egocentric. But it is not ethical: it does not show any nice behavior.

You could argument, that traffic is all about rules. And in a way, that is correct: there are a lot of rules you have to keep when participating in traffic. In my many debates about this, I often hear: “But what would happen if everybody just did what they wanted? It’d be a big mess!”. Unequivocally, yes, it would be a big mess. But that is only the case if you see the opposite of “legal” to be anarchistic. And that is not correct.

If you ask a random person, “what is the opposite of good”, they will say: “bad”. However, Jim Collins starts his book “Good to great” with the famous words “Good is the enemy of great”. In some way, good is the opposite of great. The same goes for following legal rules: the opposite isn’t necessarily anarchistic. In most cases, it is … ethical. The challenge is: most people do not see this.

Most people see three ground principles to decide — also known as the decision paradigms:

· Am I allowed to do it (the legal one)?
· Am I able to do it (the opportunistic one)?
· Am I going to do it (the egocentric one)?

As I child, I learned an -if I was taught correct- old English proverb, or anecdote:

The righteous man and the unrighteous man are walking together in the rain. Who is getting wet? It’s the righteous man. Because the unrighteous man stole the umbrella from the righteous man.

The righteous man would be unrighteous if he used violence to take his umbrella back. He would be unrighteous if he just grabbed the umbrella back from the other one. But according to many, he would be righteous if he’d used his legal rights (hence the term “righteous”) to get his umbrella back, even though it might take some time and the rain would’ve stopped in the meanwhile.

But what if I say, he’d be unrighteous if he hired a lawyer, sued the unrighteous man, got a judge to tell the unrighteous man to give him his umbrella back? It would sound paradoxically, wouldn’t it? Let me explain:

“The righteous man and the unrighteous man are walking together in the rain”. Please notice the word “together”. Do you see the two men? Walking, probably talking. They seem to be friends, or at least on a friendly or cooperative basis. Then something happens, which result in a lawsuit, both men must hire a lawyer, and in the end, one of them is going to pay the costs of both lawyers, and the salary of the judge (or at least some of it). What’s more important: they will never have the same cooperative will as they had before: their relationship, whatever on which level it was, has turned for the worse. There are two people who has won in this case: the lawyers. Both got a customer, and one of those customers paid for both.

The righteous man could have been ethical. He could have proposed: “Let’s both of us use the umbrella, there is room enough for two”. Or perhaps, he could have said: “You know what, I don’t like to be wet, so let’s go to a store and buy you an umbrella”. Of course, there’s always the risk that the unrighteous man denies the request, but that is beside the point.

The legal paradigm

In my 25 years as entrepreneur, I’ve had a few cases where I disagreed with a customer, or another company. I can’t deny that (or sure, I can, but that would be a lie). A few years ago, an elderly man bought a computer in one of my companies. Within one week, he got himself a malware, and asked my company to remove it. That was no biggie, however, it took two hours. We sent him an invoice. The customer got mad. “This should be included the price of the new computer”, he complained. I can’t see any reason why that should be the case. In the same mail, he demanded to credit the invoice, and added “or else, I will get in touch with my lawyer, in order to undo the purchase of the new computer and get a full refund”.

Now, that are strong words! The man had no rights to assume that additional work to get the malware removed was included in the price. But because he has the right to return goods within 14 days, his lawyer might be able to find a way to win. I was not intended to hire a lawyer, to fight back. I was even not intended to get this to court. However, neither was I intended to lose. So, what did I do? I credited his invoice. And then I waited. I waited, until the man called for help. It took three years, but then I rang, and asked if I could help him. I said: “Sure, but you have to pay me the two hours, you requested credited, again”. And so he did.

What does this story tell? This man and I had a disagreement, and the only way to solve it, in his eyes, was through the legal system. I chose the ethical way. It took three years, but we solved our dispute.

The opportunistic paradigm

When I started my first company, back in 1995, I discovered very quickly payment is following invoicing is not always is going to happen. Naïve as I was, I made a flyer, which I got distributed in the little town in Netherlands, where I was living. Being 18 years old, and only seeing the world from my own perspective, I expected to sell at least twenty computers from my first flyer. However, only two people contacted me. One was the chairman of the local citizens association who bought a computer. I didn’t realize how lucky I was with that one shot bulls’ eye. However, it should turn out, I was way luckier with the other one, even though it didn’t look lucky the whole time.

The other person who contacted me, was a guy named Bert. He was a couple of years older than I, and when he called, he’d say he’d wanted to visit me, so we could talk about a computer, he wanted to buy. The guy was a very jovial type, and it turned out we shared some interests. We made a deal about a new computer, which I ordered from my supplier, installed, and configured and then delivered to his home address. And I gave him an invoice. As I said, I was naïve. So, I expected a payment within 8 days, as stated on the invoice. But … you might guess it already … no payment was made. And I contacted Bert. He had some excuses about money somebody owed him, that hadn’t arrived, unexpected. I asked him when he could have the money. “Three days”, he replied. After three days, there was no payment. I thought: “Perhaps it takes a few more days for him to make the payment”. But one week later, I still had no money. And I had to pay my supplier.

I decided to go to his home address, and simply ask for the money. When I rang the doorbell, his father opened the door, and told me, Bert was not at home. But he invited me inside and offered me a cup of coffee. Then he said: “You have become Bert’s next victim. Bert is ill. How much does he owe you?”

When I look back over the years, I can see I have been very, very lucky, because Bert’s father paid the bill. But I learned something: some people do things because they can. Not because they are allowed to do so. The law is very clear: when I buy something, I am obliged to pay. But Bert was able to get me ordering a computer, do all the work for him, but when it comes to payment, he’d be “not at home”. Lucky for me, he has a father who paid — because this was in the very beginning of my business adventures, and it could have been the early shutdown of my first company, and with that all my future companies.

Bert was an opportunist. He didn’t care about the law. He just did what he could: smooth talking, being nice, and while doing that, cheat as much as possible. Bert was living according to the opportunistic paradigm. He does what is possible, legal, or not. And of course, Bert is not the only one. There are many, many opportunists amongst us.

One of the reasons, there are so many opportunists in the world, is because of a failing legal system. That makes it look like, legal belongs on a pedestal. But the legal paradigm is just a gateway from the opportunistic to the ethical/moral paradigm. Because the legal paradigm can be used to improve the legal system from within, so we can begin using the ethical paradigm. With a heavily improved legal system, we can take care of people, who use the opportunistic approach.

I never talked to Bert or his father again. I assumed, his father meant “a diagnosed, psychological illness”, when he told me, Bert was ill. I am not so sure about that anymore. It also could mean “bad”. Actually, I think that is what Bert’s father meant.

The egocentric paradigm

To some level, we are all egocentric. When a baby is born and is being laid on his/her mother’s bare skin, the baby automatically finds it way to the mother’s breast, to be nursed (if everything is well, of course). And many mothers might recognize the sudden pain that occurs, when the baby takes a bite in the nipple. No baby is intended to hurt their mother, and yet, they do. The first thing a baby does, when born natural, is hurting their mother. Even in mommy’s belly, babies might hurt their mother. Simply, because a baby has one thing that is important: survive. Regardless any other person in the world.

It takes a few years, before children realize, there are more people in the world, who need to be considered. It’s only a few weeks ago, my youngest daughter, born in 2016, asked me: “Daddy, are you thirsty? I’d like to get you some water”. And that, while she only asked it, because she wanted to have some water herself.

I have no idea about, how many people make the transition from egocentric to (somehow) cooperative, nor in what age they do. I have the (possible naïve) imagination, that most people eventually find out, that taking other’s interests into account might gain their own interests, in the end. Even though I am not a big fan of quid pro quo, it’s better than being egocentric.

I would like to share a story from the start of my business career, where I was involved with a guy, who was very egocentric. This is because this guy is a perfect example of someone, who lives a life based on the egocentric approach.

Mr. E

After I had been a sole proprietor in a few years, I decided I wanted to have a co-worker, not necessarily in my own company (I thought: my time will come). The first person I started working together with was a cool guy, who was studying in another town. When he was finished, he got a job somewhere, and he closed his company. I wanted to continue, but since he quit, I had to find another one in the same position. And I found a young man, who just had started his computer sales company. Let’s call him Mr. E.

Even though I did not know anything about the four decision paradigms, I quickly found out, that Mr. E. was very arrogant. That didn’t stop me from cooperating with him: at that time, I was very insecure, had a low self-esteem, and found him, somehow, interesting. He occurred to me as being a bit of a rebellion: I was a Christian at that time, and he had decided, he didn’t believe in a divine superpower. And even though I did not agree, he did not try to convince me: he did not care about what I thought. I saw him as a superficial person, and we became friends, where he clearly was the dominant part. I even introduced him to one of my other friends.

In 1998, the three of us went on holiday to France. Even though I suggested a trip to Denmark, it was clear that Mr. E. would decide. Simply because that is what he does, no matter what other people want or do. During the holiday, Mr. E. took all the decisions. It started already on the way to France. My other friend and I should share the ride in my car. I would drive the first part because my friend had been working all day, prior to departure. I said to him: “You should not fall asleep, because then I will fall asleep, too”. At the first stop, around the Dutch-Belgian border, my friend said to Mr. E, he was so tired. “But Albert doesn’t want me to sleep”. Mr. E. replied: “That’s not up to Albert. If you want to sleep, then sleep”. And my friend slept. I made it to the Belgian-French border, but then I turned on the radio, with the volume at max, so I could keep myself awake. That woke my friend, and fortunately, he proposed to drive a bit.

The entire holiday, Mr. E. took all the decisions, obviously accepted by my friend. Reluctantly, I accepted it, too, at first. It all culminated the night, I got drunk for the first (and last) time in my life: I don’t do alcohol. I simply do not think my body needs it. But Mr. E. wanted to drink alcohol. And he convinced me of drinking rum, followed by beer. And I, not being used to alcohol, certainly not that combination and/or order, got drunk right away. I felt asleep. Most of what happened is still unclear for me. Later, I learned that Mr. E. accused me of pretending to be drunk, on which I, allegedly, replied: “He is totally right”. That pissed off Mr. E. I don’t know why. And Mr. E left the table and got into his tent. I did the same, and, according to my friend, I was crying for Mr. E. to not being mad at me.

Eventually, the alcohol wore off, and I began thinking clearer. It was in the middle of the night, and I decided to tear down my tent, put it into my car, and drive back to The Netherlands.

I spoke to Mr. E. three times more. Because I was mad at both my friend and Mr. E., I was intended to cut all connections to them. My friend, however, called me, and said: “Albert, we’ve been friends a long time. I don’t want to trade you for Mr. E.”. My friend never talked to Mr. E. again. But I thought: If my friend can put himself aside, then I can do that, too. And I called Mr. E. I wanted to smooth out things. We talked, but he did not want to accept any responsibility, he felt no sorry, and seemed to be totally careless. I said to him: “If that is your point of view, then there is no reason we ever speak together”. A few weeks passed by. Suddenly, Mr. E. called. He had a job, and due to some physical problems, he was unable to deliver, what he’d promise his customer. I just answered: “bad luck for you. Goodbye”.

Ten years later, I was on a short visit in The Netherlands. Five years prior to that, I moved to Denmark, but sometimes, I came to The Netherlands. I had a nice dinner with some former colleagues from a company I’ve been working for a long time ago. I went to the toilet, and after washing my hands, I opened the door, and looked straight into the eyes of Mr. E. He seemed to be as surprised as I was. I just said “hi”, and walked away, to the bar. I drank a few cokes with my former colleagues. One hour later, Mr. E., who had returned from the toilet, and was talking to his (assumed) friends, raised, walked to me, put a business card in my hand, and said: “This is my new company, and this time, I feel I am going to make it”. And then he left. I burned the business card, and haven’t heard from Mr. E. ever, at least until further.

Back to the subject. When I am speaking of egocentric approach, I am not necessarily speaking of narcissism, nor on selfishness. I am not a psychiatrist. I can’t tell whether Mr. E. is egocentric or a narcissist. The difference between a narcissist and an egocentric person, is the narcissist is very insecure, however well disguised as being successful, kind, humble or funny, while an egocentric person thinks he is invulnerable. Since I was heavily insecure at that time, I think I might have recognized another insecure person. I never saw that in Mr. E, and, looking back over the years, I still do not see that. My wife, who only can know Mr. E. from what I have told her, thinks he is insecure and thus putting on a mask. I don’t think so. I think, Mr. E. simply does what he wants to do. And does not care about other’s interests.

Same goes for Donald Trump: many say, he is a narcissist. I am not so sure about that. I think, he is simply convinced about the fact, he is invulnerable.

It is important, to distinguish between narcissism and egocentric behavior. Simply because narcissism is a psychological condition. Being egocentric is not: it’s an active, firsthand choice. Simply because it is the shortest way to power — over the back of others. And that is the reason, some people do as they like: because the urge for power, the urge to show that they are in charge, gives them a rush. But, it is worse than being an opportunist. Because an opportunist sees a possibility and grabs is, as it comes within an arm’s length. An egocentric person plans it, ceases it and uses it.

The opportunists are taking over from the legalists

The world is degenerating. The group of “legalists” is decreasing, in favor of the group of opportunists and egocentrics. The latter one is, fortunately, not taking over, yet. But that will come if we don’t do anything. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph, is that good men do nothing. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the opportunists, so we can turn opportunism to “legalism”. But we surely may not lose focus on egocentrism, because that is a way more dangerous group. Forget the individuals. Identify the terms, and refer to them, in the hope to reach someone in those groups.

What I am saying is: legalism is bad, opportunism is worse and egocentrism is a catastrophe. The largest group, however, is legalism. To create a better world, we need to become ethical, in the end. We cannot do that at once. The world is slowly on its way from legalism to opportunism, and some are going a step further. We can use legalism to strengthen the legal systems, which eventually can be turned into the ethical approach. And we can use the opportunistic method to convince egocentric people to think more simply, and just grab what’s within their reach. This step-by-step approach could make our world better again.

Without the ethical/moral paradigm, Nicole‘s wish for a little bit of peace will still be a wish. Martin Luther King Jr. — Wikipedia’s dream will only be a dream. John Lennons search for universal love will still be a search. Edmund Burke’s famous quote about good men doing nothing will be nothing more than a quote. We simply need to change our attitude, if we want to achieve sustainable peace in the world. If we want to live Palestinians and Israelis side by side, we need to think ethical. If we want Putin keeps his long fingers from Ukraine, Chechnya and other former Soviet republics, we need ALL be ethical, including Putin.

Oh well, my article might come too late. It’s not going to happen, it will never be perfect. But go with me on the journey. Join me, while traveling to a better world. Embrace the first paradigm of decisions. Only then, we can make the world better. It might be too late for those, who live according to the opportunistic or the egocentric paradigms. But those of you, who still act and decide, using the legal paradigm, especially you who assume, there’s nothing higher that that: open your eyes! Change your mind. Change your attitude. Become ethical. Do, what you ought to do.

Thank you for reading.



Albert Denmark

Father, husband, Computer Geek and author. Living in Denmark, born in Holland. Mail: