Framing Our Choices

As long as people have made decisions, they’ve thought about how they make decisions. For centuries, they constructed elaborate theories on decision-making by observing human behaviour from the outside. Since the mind was inaccessible, – the brain was just a black box, – these thinkers were forced to rely on untestable assumptions about what was actually happening inside the head.

Ever since the ancient Greeks, these assumptions have revolved around a single theme: humans are rational. When we make decisions, we are supposed to consciously analyze the alternatives and carefully weigh the pros and cons. In other words, we are deliberate and logical creatures. This simple idea underlies the philosophy of Plato and Descartes; it forms the foundation of modern economics; it drove decades of research in cognitive science. Over time, our rationality came to define us. It was, simply put, what made us human.

There is only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: it is wrong. It is not how the brain works. We can look inside the brain and see how humans think: the black box has been broken open. It turns out that we weren’t designed to be rational creatures. Instead the mind is composed of a messy network of different areas, many of which are involved with the production of emotion. Whenever someone makes a decision, the brain is awash in feeling, driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when a person is trying to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence judgment.

But this doesn’t mean our brains come preprogrammed for good decision-making. Despite the claims of many self-help books, intuition isn’t a miraculous cure-all. Sometimes feelings can lead us astray and cause us to make all kinds of predictable mistakes. The brain has a big cortex for a reason.

The simple truth of the matter is that making good decisions requires us to use both sides of the mind. For too long we’ve treated human nature as an either/or situation. We are either rational or irrational. We either rely on statistics or we trust our gut instincts. There’s Apollonian logic versus Dionysian feeling; the id against the ego; the reptilian brain fighting the frontal lobes.

Not only are these dichotomies false, they’re destructive. There is no universal solution to decision-making. The real world is just too complex. As a result, natural selection endowed us with a brain that is enthusiastically pluralist. Sometimes we need to reason through our options and carefully analyze the possibilities. And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions. The secret is to know when to use these different styles of thought. We always need to be thinking about how we think.

How does the mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better?

Jonah Lehrer
from How We Decide

How We Decide