How Decisions Are Made

The heart has reasons the head knows not of. 

– Blaise Pascal

The mechanism by which we make decisions – either the huge, life-altering ones (choosing a spouse) or the minute-by-minute ones (what to order for dinner) – is fascinatingly complex. It’s also nothing like I imagined it. This is why I was so hooked on this book – page after page highlighting how much I don’t really know myself. 

I imagined a decision as the moment when you consciously pull together all the facts and select the best choice. According to researchers, this decision model is quite flawed. How? Let me count the ways.

Reason vs. Emotion

We tend to view reason and emotion as distinct processes. They are opposing forces and we should separate them in order to make the most “well-reasoned” decision. Actually, our power of reason is completely dependent upon emotion.

As we go about our day, we are bombarded with millions of stimuli – a buzzing, blooming confusion of sounds, sights, smells, and motions. And yet amidst all this pyrotechnic chaos, different parts of the brain and body interact to for an Emotional Positioning System. Like a GPS that might be in your car, the EPS senses your current situation and compares it to the vast body of data it has stored in its memory. It reaches certain judgements about whether the course you are on will produce good or bad outcomes, and then it coats each person, place, or circumstance with an emotion that helps us navigate our days. 

Our conscious mind then can make decisions on the basis of the millions of emotional valuations fed up from the unconscious. In fact, researchers have shown that if brain injury takes away our EPS, our minds get stuck on the easiest of decisions. Imagine trying to decide which method to use to tie your shoe… for hours and hours… bunny ears or loop-swoop-and-pull?

There is no one decision-maker

We also tend to view our ourselves as the “captain in the cockpit making decisions”. As Sam Harris says, there’s a sense of being perched somewhere behind our eyes. This sense of self is imaginary, and so is the sense of one unified mind making decisions.

There is no Cartesian theater – a spot where all the different processes and possibilities come together to get ranked and where actions get planned. Instead, as Nobel Laureate Gerald Ebelman put it, the brain looks like an ecosystem, a fantastically complex associative network of firings, patterns, reactions, and sensations all communicating with and responding to different parts of the brain and all competing for a piece of control over the organism. 

Decisions aren’t one point in time

Also incorrect is our tendency to view a decision as a concrete moment in time. Brooks says it’s best to view us as wanderers, not decision-makers.

We wander across an environment of people and possibilities. As we wander, the mind makes a near-infinite number of value judgements, which accumulate to form goals, ambitions, dreams, desires, and ways of doing things.

Our choices, and their origins deep in our emotional subconscious, are extremely messy. But now that we know this awesome piece of science, how do we use it to make better decisions and live a better life? That’s what the rest of The Social Animal is about – how to train the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive enough to know how to read them.


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