How We Decide

Summary Written by Joel D Canfield
"The first step to making better decisions is to . . . honestly assess our flaws and talents, our strengths and shortcomings."

- How We Decide, page 259

The Big Idea

The Brain Is An Argument

"Even the most mundane choices emerge from a vigorous cortical debate."- How We Decide, page 199

Your brain is like a couple kids fighting over who gets the window seat on a long drive. I’ll bet you keep giving the same kid the window seat and putting the other kid in the trunk.

In our quest to be “logical” we give reason the window seat, and put emotions in the trunk. The answer, just as it is with kids on a long trip, is balance.

Whether it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink or the work of Daniel Kahneman or Dan Pink (Drive, A Whole New Mind), we’re reading more and more about the balance of reason and intuition, logic and emotion, in decision-making.

Take emotion and intuition out of the trunk. Look back at decisions you feel had poor results, and consider where your emotions might have served you better than analysis did. You know, those times when you just “had a feeling” but ignored it because you couldn’t explain it.

Conversely, consider the times you didn’t have the time or inclination to invest in analysis, and simply chose―and felt like you’d won the lottery. In retrospect, note the very reasonable factors which, upon analysis, might have led you to choose differently―but not better.

If your memory fails you, do this test going forward. Tune into your emotional intuitive decision-making ability. Recognizing that it exists is the first step toward training it as a powerful business and life tool.

Insight #1

You Know More Than You Know

"By looking at how dopamine works inside the brain, we can see why feelings are capable of providing deep insights."- How We Decide, page 35

We’d all like to believe that mistakes are really “learning experiences.” For your unconscious, they are. Your unconscious has spent a lifetime gathering information, becoming expert in certain areas by learning from your mistakes. Your unconscious brain, if you’ll just stay out of its way, can process millions of bits of data simultaneously. Your conscious mind, on the other hand, can handle about a dozen… assuming you’re not distracted and that the bits are related to each other.

You don’t even need the time to become expert for your unconscious to benefit. In one experiment outlined in How We Decide, subjects were given an imaginary budget and three decks of cards with financial rewards or punishments. They drew any cards they wanted, trying to end the game with as much money as possible.

Since the decks were carefully prepared, drawing from two of them led to consistent wins. The third, though it had high payouts, carried extravagant punishments. The logical mathematical course was to avoid the dangerous deck.

On average, people chose about 50 cards before they stopped drawing from the danger deck, and about 80 cards before they could explain why.

Biochemical measurements revealed that, by the 10th card, their unconscious emotional responses to the danger deck were already evident. In effect, their emotions learned in 10 draws what it took their conscious mind eight times as long to learn.

The difference, it turns out, is actually chemical. As your unconscious begins to identify patterns, your brain quickly adjusts the bursts of dopamine – a feel-good chemical – affecting the way you feel. Rewards become anticipation: your brain feels good even before you’ve made a good choice, or dumps you in the ditch in anticipation of the bad choice you’re about to make.

Consider your own experiences from your meditation under the The Big Idea. In your areas of greatest experience, pause when making decisions and consider your feelings. Don’t try to put them in words, other than “positive/good” or “negative/bad.”

Take note of how often your gut feeling aligns with the decisions you end up making logically in this area of expertise. Awareness of your emotional response is vital to making use of it as a decision-making tool.

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Insight #2

Think LESS About Those Items You Care A Lot About

"Instead of going with the option that feels best, a person starts going with the option that sounds the best, even if it's a very bad idea."- How We Decide, page 140

Trivial decisions like which jam to put on your morning toast don’t deserve increased attention. It turns out that big decisions could also benefit from less attention. Less conscious attention, that is.

A psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, Ap Dijksterhuis, conducted an experiment which showed that when presented with a small number of variables, logic yielded better decisions more often than intuition. When presented with a large number of variables (48 variables compared to 16 in the earlier experiment) intuition provided better decisions than taking time to fully analyze the options.

In these circumstances, your unconscious can make better decisions than your conscious mind.

Start small. Don’t experiment with your choice of a life partner or buying a house. Next time you need to make a decision you think you might struggle with, whether it’s which movie to see this weekend or whether or not to join that networking group, write each option on a slip of paper. Now, feed your brain 3 or 4 factors about each option, no more. Then sleep on it. Tomorrow, pull out the cards and just pick one. Don’t pause, analyze, or even think. Just read the two or three choices and pick one.

Write down how you feel about it right now. Next week, write down how you feel about it after the fact.

Train yourself to recognize your satisfaction level with your decisions, and you’ll train yourself to think less about the things you care about―and make better decisions in the process.

The three pounds of goo in our head continues to mystify and fascinate me. The better we understand how the brain works, the better we can use this most marvelous tool. Books like How We Decide provide insight that makes it possible.

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Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer is a Contributing Editor at Wired and the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He graduated from Columbia University and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s written for The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. He’s also a Contributing Editor at Scientific American Mind and National Public Radio’s Radio Lab.

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