We’ve all made decisions. Every second of every day presents opportunities for us to decide to make a purchase or act on an impulse or even fight to change or eliminate a habit. Even when you succumb to a chocolate craving, for example, or refrain from going to the store to spend money, you’re making decisions. While everyone makes decisions, few people understand the processes involved. For some people such understanding might present new opportunities to fight lazy ways of thinking or to find themselves better positioned to change habits or behaviors.
Decisions and the Brain
Decision making requires the interaction and excitement of numerous regions in the brain. When working together, these brain regions can execute well considered, or even healthy, decisions. When out of synch, or restricted by addictive behavior, for example, your decisions can become less than ideal.
The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher functions, such as reason and logic, usually only plays a part in decision making when self-control is required. People with addictions to opioids, for example, probably see less activity in the prefrontal cortex when they’re choosing to feed their cravings.
Humans are Emotional Animals
Aristotle is famously said to have referred to humans as rational animals. While this sounds nice in the context of intellectual discourse, the opposite is actually true. Emotions do more to guide people than reason. When we’re confronted with too many decisions, for example, we find ourselves at a loss, unable to make any decisions.
Have you ever found yourself staring at a wall of movies, wanting to watching something but not finding anything to watch despite the selection? When we’re confronted with too many options and can’t make a decision, we experience what cognitive scientists refer to as analysis paralysis. Such an abundance of choice might paralyze our abilities to make decisions. In those cases, we ultimately settle on an option for emotional reasons. Perhaps we feel nostalgic for a certain movie. In that case, we might settle on that over a movie we’ve eagerly waited to see.
Intuition and Emotions
Intuition itself is largely derived from emotions. If we make a decision, we often use intuition to guide us. If asked later to explain why we made certain choices, those justifications almost always occur as afterthoughts.
As a rule of thumb, intellectual reasoning occurs after our brains have made decisions. They rarely play a part in the decision making process itself.
Expectations and Decision Making
Cognitive scientists have understood the importance of expectations for years. One quirk of the human brain involves perceiving expectations. Perceptual expectancy is our ability to perceive what we expect to perceive. For example, if you walk into a gas station expecting to see an abundance of cases of Coke, you’ll focus on them while dismissing altogether an overabundance of cases of Pepsi. Alternately, when we switch from smoking cigarettes to vaping, we might choose vape juices that we expect to be healthy for us or taste better than traditional cigarettes. Although both reasons are justified, we never acknowledge the varied expectations that led us to those decisions.
Perceptual expectancy can help some people reinforce the stereotypes of other people, for example. If a man views women as inferior drivers, he might only notice examples of bad driving perpetrated by women, even if he witnesses far more examples of bad driving by men. He might not even consciously register those instances because they conflict with his expectations, which helps to define his worldview.
How We Respond to Decision Making
Another unique—and occasionally frustrating—quark of the human brain involves how we accept decisions we’ve made. Typically, a person will accept a decision he or she has made as true or correct simply because he or she made that decision. In other words, the act of executing a decision will, in retrospect, present itself as the right course, even if the consequences of those decisions are demonstrably harmful or detrimental.
Alternately, the length of time it takes us to make a decision can affect our confidence in it. If we make snap decisions, we’re likely to view them as correct. If we’re stricken with analysis paralysis, for example, and struggle to make a decision, we might experience decreased confidence in our choices.