To Donut or Not to Donut?

To Donut or not to Donut?

This has been a year of many decisive moments–should I, shouldn’t I, will I, wont I, when, how, how much, . . . and on and on. I am exhausted by all this decision making. Yet, in the end, when it came time to fish or cut bait, each decision was made in one single moment.

Yes, one.

I can tell you the exact moment I made the decision, but I cannot give you a frame-by-frame breakdown of how I arrived at that decision, nor can I claim that it was neat and deductive.

Decision-making is messy and mysterious, and despite our most fervent hope for perfection and rationality, it is neither.

In his book, The Decisive Moment, Jonah Lehrer maps out both the anatomy and the mechanics of decision-making and shows us how we arrive at a conclusion ( a decision) as a result of a holistic process that engages both our reptilian as well as our executive brains, our Dionysian as well as Apollonian selves.

Unlike the Platonic ideal of a purely rational mind, the human mind is governed by both reason and emotion, and makes decisions based on information from all parts of our brain–the limbic as well as frontal areas.

This contradicts our most conventional view of human nature, which privileges reason and executive function over all else.

In fact, the opposite is actually true. It turns out that reason may be “the slave of passions,” to borrow the words of David Hume, eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher.

Neuroscientists have shown that when the neural connection between our “primitive” (emotional) brain and our “conscious” (executive) brain is severed, decision-making is hampered.

Who knew?

I have always considered my emotions to be a hindrance, an obstacle to my decision-making–something that got in the way of my making a “good” decision. Turns out that it’s an essential resource in the process. Humans need both thoughts and feelings in order to make decisions.

Kahneman and Tversky, two behavioral psychologists who study decision-making (amongst many other things), write that when humans are faced with uncertain situations, they do not carefully evaluate all the information and compute probabilities for various outcomes, rather they depend on a short list of emotions, instincts, and mental shortcuts in order to arrive at a decision.

Even Aristotle (yeah, I’m going there) argued for the integration of emotion and reason, positing that one of the critical funtions of the rational mind was to make sure that emotions are “intelligently applied” to the real world. “Anyone can become angry–that is easy,” he wrote. “But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way–that is not easy.” That requires some thought.

And who am I to argue with Aristotle? Granted, he still makes reason the “charioteer” and emotion the “chariot,” but if the boy wants to give me a hall pass for emotions, Ima take it!

If I “feel” like some chocolate cake, I’m going to “decide” to get it! I’m not going to count the calories in a slice, calculate how many of my calories I’ve “spent” already or how many I’ve “earned” on my 3-mile walk. I’m just going to get it.

Speaking of which, Lehrer talks about how too much data (and too much rationalization) can actually hinder the decision-making process. You see, this kind of detailed analysis takes up a whole lot of space in the part of our brain known as working memory, which just happens to share space (a common cortical source–the prefrontal cortex) with the part of the brain that helps us to exert self control.

So why do we care? Well, consider this experiment conducted by researchers, Shiv and Fedorikhin, who looked at the interplay between thinking and feeling in decision-making. In this study, one group of participants were asked to first memorize a 7-digit number, after which they were sent on to another room, ostensibly to have their long-term memory tested. Along the way from one testing room to another, the participants had to pass a refreshment table where they were offered a choice between slice of decadent German chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. A second group of participants in the same study was given a different task–they had to memorize just a 2-digit number. Again, after they memorized that number, they were led past the same refreshment table where they were again offered the choice of the cake or the fruit salad. What do you think happened? 59% of the participants trying to remember a 7-digit number chose the chocolate cake compared to just 37% of the 2-digit participants.

What’s the big deal?

Well, it turns out that distracting the brain with a challenging memory task makes a person much more likely to give in to temptation and choose the cake. The extra effort required to memorize 7 digits drew cognitive resources away from the part of the brain that normally controls emotional urges. Because working memory and rationality share a common cortical source–the prefrontal cortex–a mind trying to remember lots of information is less able to exert control over its impulses. In this case the participants’ self control was overwhelmed by 5 extra digits!

Moral of the story: Think less and remain thin.

Okay, so this is an oversimplification. But the example was offered as evidence to show how our thinking and feeling are inextricably intertwined. And, perhaps more importantly, how both affect our decision-making.

So the next time someone asks you to “think something through,” allow yourself to also “feel it through.”

This is not math, people. This is life.

Categories: Reflections

Tags: ,

3 replies

  1. I love the idea that thinking less will make me better able to resist chocolate cake. This certainly makes me think (ha!) about why I have trouble resisting temptation after a hard day at work.

Leave a Comment