Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How the Brain Decides

We're in an election year, so it's likely we'll all be making at least one big decision this year, right? How about this year, we all make that decision and the millions of others we'll face with some knowledge of the brain and the neuro-science behind making decisions?

We modern human beings like to believe that we are rational, contemplative, and logical. This comes from the prevalence of the philosophies of Plato, Socrates and Descartes, among others, in our culture. We believe that the best way to make decisions is to weigh the pros and cons, use a logical path to predict consequences, and get the facts!

We have just the brain for the job! Specifically, the pre-frontal cortex. It's big enough for the job - taking up 1/3 of the brain's space and using 45% of the brain's total energy consumption. A lot of the heavy lifting of how we function daily takes place in the pre-frontal cortex. The clear and deliberate thought processes we engage, the comparisons we make, the creation of pros and cons, and also the storage of short term information all happens in the pre-frontal cortex. This is obviously the place where decisions are made and, more importantly, where they
should be made, right?

Not so fast. Decision making is more complicated than that and, as human beings go, so is the brain. There are 3 concepts to consider when looking at decision making. The first is what Freud called "ego" or just think of it as identity, or sense of self. The second is the emotive brain - not easily pinpointed as a location in the brain, but a combination of a few different areas working in collusion. The third concept to consider is that the pre-frontal cortex has some limitations.

Our sense of identity is easily recognized when we decide things that differ from rationality. Example, Pepsi Cola wins the majority of blind taste tests and has for decades. However, Coca-Cola outsells Pepsi. Theory says that this is because the branding of Coca-Cola has affected people at a deeper level beyond simple taste. People identify themselves as Coke or Pepsi drinkers. Coke has made its brand more attractive to more cola drinkers than Pepsi. Also, think how many times you have bet on your team vs. the team that rationally and logically has the best shot at winning - the highest odds are not in your team's favor and yet you make the bet.  Your identity has influenced your decision.

The emotive brain has much more going for it in the realm of decision making than we give it credit for. It is likely pondering through the issues at hand unconsciously and so comes forth as "intuition" or a "gut feeling." Some of us are better than others at listening to these feelings. We all could stand to improve this ability. When you are making a decision, give yourself the main points to consider - let's say several pros and cons, then "sleep on it" or play a couple of games of checkers with your kids or make dinner. While your pre-frontal cortex gets involved with another task, your emotive brain is unconsciously working the decision through. This increases the odds that you will make a good decision.

The pre-frontal cortex can only handle 7 or so pieces of information at a time, in general. So, the more options and considerations you give it in making your choice, the more likely it is to give in to an impulse. This is what happens with elections. The candidate with the most money and the attack ads that create emotional responses wins, because the pre-frontal cortex of most voters is overwhelmed with information and sorting through truths and untruths. So, the candidate who is most present in advertising and creates the feeling that matches the voters' needs gets the votes.

Take home message:

  • Decisions that involve rational and logical pros and cons need to have a limited number of considerations. Buying a car is mostly rational. Make a list of 5-7 really important aspects of the cars you are considering and make the choice based on those considerations.
  • Decisions that involve emotive needs like artwork, clothing, aspects of home buying and the like should always involve your emotive brain. Let your emotive brain - your intuition, your gut get involved.
  • Decisions that involve both, which is large portion of decisions, will require some rational consideration and some emotional unconscious pondering. Sleep on it!
  • Finally, there are those decisions that are just better made very quickly by our emotive brains where we have long term learning and information stored. The "miracle on the Hudson" decision-making by Captain Sully Sullivan saved lives, because he made split second decisions using the training and experience stored in his brain. If he had waited until his pre-frontal cortex had thought through all the options, minutes would have passed and the outcome would most likely have been very different.

This year, use your brain well for all your decisions!

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