STAN LAJUGIE explores decision-making, and how to keep getting better at it. The results may surprise you, as the biology shows that not much of it depends on thinking!
Forrest Gump is the story of a fairly simple man; so simple that people often thought he was stupid and made fun of him. He loved running and chocolate, and if we look at his entire life, he only took good decisions! He always followed his heart. As Idriss Aberkane says in Free Your Brain, can we say that a person who only takes good decisions in their life is stupid? No, right? At the same time, we can see many intelligent people taking wrong decisions! So, we come to understand that decision-making is not about thinking. It is about feeling.
Decision-making is a critical aspect of our lives. At work, we are paid to make decisions, and the decisions we make design our destiny. Our mind is a critical instrument for making decisions, but very few people pay attention to the process. To understand the biology of decision-making, here is an overview of the 4 steps:
1. Security check – quick and dirty
First the information is checked by the mammalian brain, especially the amygdala, the part of the midbrain that is in charge of identifying threats and opportunities. Simply put: am I going to be eaten, or am I going to eat?
When there is perceived danger, the amygdala triggers the fight-or-flight response, which Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, calls an amygdala hijacking. The limbic brain overrides all other parts of the brain to mobilize maximum resources for attack or defense. The blood moves to the limbs and the mid and back parts of the brain, not to the prefrontal cortex, the CEO brain, which is dedicated to analysis and rational thinking. As a result, reactions and outbursts replace rational thought. Thus, decisions taken during or soon after an amygdala hijacking are likely to be based upon strong emotions not rational thinking. Someone who is operating mostly from this state of mind can be described as a reactive-compulsive decision-maker.
When the situation is safe, we move to the second stage of decision making.
2. Analysis and rational thinking – intelligent and slow
The information passes to the prefrontal cortex, where we evaluate all the pros and cons of the situation. This is where we harness all our rational and analytical capacities. Deep thinking demands a focused mind. The more distracted we are, the shallower our reflections. The shorter our reflections, the more trivial they are likely to be. A reader’s mind typically wanders anywhere from 20% to 40% of the time while reading a text. Not surprisingly, the more our mind wanders, the worse the comprehension (Daniel Goleman, Focus).
Besides, the rational thinking process is very slow! In the “Iowa Gambling Task” (Bechara et al., Science 1997), participants were told to gamble with four decks of cards. Secretly, two were biased so that they would tend to win, and the other two so that they would tend to lose. Throughout the game, their Skin Conductance Response was measured, and every 20 cards the experimenters asked participants what they knew about the game, and how they felt about it.
Here is what they observed:
- After 80 cards, participants had observed that two of the decks were better than average and two were worse than average.
- After 50 cards, participants expressed a hunch, a feeling that they liked two of the decks more than the other two.
- After 10 to 30 cards, participants sweated more when reaching for the bad decks than when reaching for the good decks. They began to pick more from the good decks, even though they didn’t give any indication that they were consciously aware of the nature of the game or their shifting behavior when asked.
Conclusion: we are capable of having physiological responses and feelings that change our behavior even before we are consciously aware of them. Conscious thinking and understanding is slow.
In the professional world, too much emphasis on decision-making can lead to analysis-paralysis. This is inefficient and delays decisions! It requires a third step.
3. Inner knowing – authentic and unspoken
Decision-making does not stop at the prefrontal cortex. It requires a third step to confirm the information, or the decision, with our inner knowing. Different parts of the limbic brain may be involved, including the brainstem, the basal ganglia, the hypothalamus, the anterior cingulate, and/or the insulate.
Daniel Goleman highlights that the best business decisions are not based on the numbers and facts available, but on something beyond. It requires that we tune into the brain circuitry that manages our entire life’s wisdom and emotions. The tricky part is that this circuitry does not connect to the parts of the brain that think in words. They give instructions through feelings. So, in order to make a good decision, we need to tap into our feelings. This is often what people call their gut feeling.
What if our mind is too busy, with too many thoughts, or just wanders here and there? What if we are not trained to pay attention to feelings? How will we listen to our inner voice of wisdom and take good decisions?
4. Wisdom and intuition – wise and wizard
Research by Dr. Igor Grossman shows that self-distancing practices such as meditation on an abstract object, like the source of light in the heart, is conducive to wise reasoning. Heart-based meditation leads to heart-brain coherence, which is conducive to higher cognitive activities. When we practice a self-distancing meditation, we recognize the limits of our knowledge, and the possibility of change. As a result, we consider others’ perspectives, and search for ways to integrate these perspectives. Decisions are wiser and more sustainable.
Other studies from Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., and Dean Radin, Ph.D., show that the heart plays an important role in intuition. The heart responds 1.5 seconds before the brain does, and indeed before any other part of the body. Even more surprisingly, the heart responds on average 4.6 seconds before the stimulus itself! This is called precognition, as it appears as a sixth sense, responding before the five senses perceive, and before thinking happens.
To sum up, we have seen the main 4 stages of decision-making. In a nutshell, decision is mostly about feeling. Heart-based meditation not only sensitizes us to feeling, but also supports wisdom and intuition, improving decision-making skills.
We are often told that in the world of competition there is no place for feelings and the heart. Well, biology says otherwise!
Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL
Stanislas is a civil servant of the Foreign Affairs Ministry of France. He has worked in many countries and enjoys making meditation fashionable wherever he goes. He has developed a course on the science of meditation for universities and corporates.