forum discussion #1

Decisions, Decisions

Who’s the Decider? You.


Welcome to the World Science Forum, a place where you can share your ideas — and connect directly with top scientists, science writers and other interesting people.

Our first guest is Jonah Lehrer, author of “How We Decide,” which examines the latest research on how humans make decisions — from picking a breakfast cereal to choosing a mate.

We spoke to Jonah. Download the interview, or listen to it here:

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Read what Jonah and others had to say — it’s just below.
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How do you make decisions? Deliberately? Instinctually? Dysfunctionally?

How much self-control do you have? Do you really have free will, or are your neurons simply doing what they’re programmed to do?

How can we as people and societies make better decisions?


The guest has left this discussion, but feel free to leave your thoughts.

Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? DavidBaron

    You say that satisficers — people who look for choices that meet some reasonable standard (“good enough”) — are happier than maximizers — who are always looking for the perfect choice. I am, unfortunately, a maximizer. Can I change this aspect of my personality, or am I destined to remain disappointed by my never-perfect-enough choices?

  2. LisaGS

    My 6 year-old is almost pathologically indecisive. It takes her at least a minute to consider her options of water or milk to drink with dinner. In contrast, my younger daughter can make snap decisions without a problem. Is this an older/younger sibling phenomena? A brain chemistry issue? A little of both? And what are steps that I can do to help my older daughter make decisions more rapidly?

    • elsa

      So it’s looking like we have a couple of possible explanations for time-consuming decisions:

      Per Jonah,

      “…indecisiveness is often a by-product of thinking too much…”

      Or per Andrew

      “[lack of] strong emotions about either choice to kick start the decision process…”

      I imagine both contribute… does one or the other seem like a better fit for your daughter?

      And I wonder, how/where do these two processes interact in the brain to finally produce a decision (or not)?

    • LisaGS

      I think in the case of my eldest, it’s more about not wanting to make the wrong choice. She’s cautious and reserved by temperament, so I think her hesitancy fits in with that.

  3. Did you find that decision-making differed widely across different cultures across the world, or that these things seem to be hard-wired?

  4. dk

    I wonder if there is a particular part of the brain that acts as a referee for all the parts that battle over a particular decision? I feel like that part of my brain is weak.

    Straining to be satisficed with life…


  5. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Jonah

    Thanks for your comments, and a special thanks to David for having me on the show! Let me try to answer a few of your questions. As for whether or not decision-making differs widely across cultures…The unsatisfying answer is that it depends. Sometimes, different societies (say, China and the US) differ dramatically, such as when it comes to household savings rates. However, on other criteria, such as how people behave during the ultimatum game, there is a striking similarity across cultures. So I’m afraid there is no easy answer, which is what you’d expect given than human behavior is a inexplicable mixture of nature and nurture.

    As for indecisiveness: I can relate to your oldest daughter! The good news is that indecisiveness is often a by-product of thinking too much, and while that can often lead us astray, I still think it’s better than thinking too little. Hopefully, your daughter can learn to trust her emotions and instincts more when it comes to things with which she has experience (such as what to drink with dinner).

    • Eli Damon

      After hearing you describe the maximizer/satificer dichotomy, I don’t understand how satisficer-type decision making works. I suppose I am outing myself as a maximizer with this question, I rarely have difficulty making small decisions but I get completely paralyzed when faced with big decisions. Even if I resolve not to require the BEST option, I still have to select AN option and I need to use some set of criteria to do it. So then I am faced with the more complicated problem of choosing a set of criteria to use in making the original decision. What am I missing here?

  6. miriam asher

    I was interested in your comments about attention in the marshmallow study. It made me think about kids with ADD and their difficulty in making the switch in thinking to distract themselves from acting impulsively. Maybe we all need some Ritalin to steer us toward acting as maximizers. Fascinating discussion. Thanks!

  7. Cari

    Although the factors across different cultures that influence the individual often differ (ie the importance of material wealth v spiritual in regard to giving to a charity or buying your kid a car/ sending them to a good school) the reasoning processes, the wieghing of pros and cons, seems very similar.

    Small decisions such as what cereal to buy are all about immediate gratification. If you choose the wrong cereal, and, persay, are displeased with your bowl of chocolate covered sugar bombs, its not going to have sweeping international consequences (unless you happen to be the dictator of a small East-asian nation, under which circumstances you might manifest this frustration with the deployment of some midrange missiles). The delima comes from not knowing which brand/sub-brand would make you happier and also the crux between short term efeects(the satisfying taste of those chocolate-covered sugar bombs) vs the long term (the imminent waistline expansion from eating chocolate covered sugar bombs).

    There is nothing wrong with taking time to consider all the facets of a decision as long as it doesnt impair the ablility to come to a conclusion. I linger over grocery shopping and meal preparations, but I find that this usually increases my enjoyment of whatever decision I finally come to.

  8. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? elsa

    I wonder what effect, if any, meditation can have on one’s decision making strategies. Certainly it seems like the type of thing that would be helpful when it’s time to focus on not-the-marshmallow. Are there any studies of this sort of thing? (I imagine that could be one of those cultural practices with neural manifestations that could explain some cultural differences in decision making???)

  9. MAKAW

    I make a gut-level decision very quickly, and then gather facts to support my intuitive choice. Rarely to I change my mind once clouded with fact and detail!

  10. Andrew

    My research has been focused on why capable leaders sometimes make flawed decisions (published as Think Again). It turns out that there are four root causes – experience that misleads us, pre-judgments that we fail to question, self-interests that conflict with the challenge we face and attachments that bias our thinking. Because the act of forming a judgment is an emotional act in the subconscious, we are often powerless to correct our own flawed thinking.

    The 6 year old who takes a long time to make a judgement does not have strong emotions about either choice to kick start the decision process: hence the time delay.

    Interestingly intuitive decision making has been proven to be superior in complex but familiar problems. Where it breaks down (when trusting your gut is the wrong thing to do) is when the situation is unfamiliar or we have conflicting self-interest or attachments. Meditation may help the intuitive processes.

    And yes there is a part of the brain that synthesises the inputs from other parts, but it does not appear to be dominant. It is more of a check on inputs than a final decider. It can spot some flawed thinking. But it can also be overwhelmed by signals coming from other parts of the brain.

  11. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Jonah

    That’s a great question about meditation, elsa. While I’m not aware of any studies that have looked at meditation and decision-making in particular, there have been numerous experiments that investigated the effect of meditation on the brain. There are too many fascinating results to describe here – Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin has led much of the research – but I think one interesting way to look at meditation is as a form of metacognitive practice. In other words, people are training themselves to think about thinking, and thus gain better control of their mind. As I detailed in my recent article on Walter Mischel and the marshmallow task, that skill can have big payoffs.

    • dk

      It occurs to me that it may be that meta-cognition — thinking about thinking — may be one key way humans are different from animals. That ability to separate yourself from the immediate seems like something animals do very little of.

      am I right on that?

  12. Jan Grygier

    While I tend to use intuitive decisionmaking where I have a lot of expertise (in my work, or when racing my sailboat), I can get bogged down in trying to maximize when making decisions that have long-lasting consequences where I am a novice – like all the decisions involved in building a house, or just deciding which vacuum cleaner to buy. So for those decisions I do the research and narrow down the choices, and then my wife goes with her gut to pick the winner. It worked great choosing schools for our kids and building two houses, though it still took forever to choose colors for the second one!

  13. What is the opposite of the “emotional brain?” Is there really any way to make a decision that is not in the end embedded in the context of our experience? I’m not sure any other kind of “brain” exists…is there an example you could provide?

  14. The opposite of the “emotional” brain is the non-emotional brain. This is the trade-off that I see along the autism spectrum, a trade-off of a “theory of mind”, for a “theory of reality”. Because the infant brain is limited in size at birth, and because the “best” time to optimize brain function is while that brain is wiring itself, that is when the trade-off occurs, in utero. I explain my hypothesis in great detail on my blog.

    It is the emotional brain that sees things in anthropomorphic terms. Those are type 2 errors, false positives. Reality is not well described by anthropomorphic metaphors, but if your only thinking tool is a “theory of mind”, that is the only way you can perceive your environment.

  15. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Jonah

    To briefly follow-up on David’s comment: Yes, I would argue that metacognition is a defining feature of the human mind. It’s worth taking a second to appreciate just how strange this talent is. Imagine that M.C. Escher drawing of a hand drawing a hand, or a video camera making a movie of itself. The human cortex is the same way, as it constantly transforms the subject at the center of consciousness⎯you⎯into yet another object contemplated by consciousness. Of course, like all things meta, the process can quickly spiral out of control. When a mind thinks about metacognition, it’s thinking about how it thinks about how it thinks. And so on.

    However, I’d argue that, most of the time, metacognition is a pretty essential talent. For starters, it allows us to realize when we’re thinking badly, so that we can avoid common biases and mental mistakes. It also allows us to tailor our thought process to the task at hand. We can stop and figure out if we should trust our gut or exercise reason, and then we can adjust our thinking accordingly. That kind of cognitive flexibility depends on metacognition.

  16. I’m interested in decisions that try to balance our interests and abilities: what to study in college, for example. There’s lots of data out there about insufficient numbers of trainees in professions like engineering and medicine and the teaching of math. On the other hand the liberal arts seem popular. What are some of the key factors motivating the decisions students make to study this or that field? Or if I can put it another way: is there a shortage of prospective engineers in the US at the primary level, are they there but the US edu system is just failing to groom them properly, or do other professions simply appeal more to the base of potential engineers? Or is it more complicated than any of that?

  17. Andrew Luke

    Hi Jonah,

    I’ve been “pathologically indecisive” about choosing a college major or career path for awhile. While I don’t think I have a damaged emotional brain (I can easily choose a breakfast cereal or what color pen to use), I have changed my major like fourteen times.

    Here is an attempted summarization of the internal dissonance:

    I usually consider each college major in depth one at a time and during this process, it seems like my NAcc and Insula become two opposing parties in a court room drama. Concurrently, my prefrontal cortex assigns one lawyer to represent each party and also acts as the attentive judge. The meta-cognitive part of my brain, whatever that is, is the jury. This jury is never able to reach a verdict, so I have a hung jury on my hands for every college major I consider.

    …In other words, I feel pretty much ambivalent toward each possible choice so its hard to even begin to compare them.

    What would you do in this situation?

    PS – Sorry if I butchered neuroscience with my court room metaphor.

  18. Andrew

    Wow, what great comments on this site. Two issues I would like to follow up on. Jonah raises the issue of knowing when to trust your gut. This is something I have been thinking about. The problem is that you want to trust your gut when you have strong emotions. But, you should not trust these emotions when you think that they might be sparked by something inappropriate. So the key to deciding when to trust your gut is to be able to think about the forces that might be driving your emotions. If any of these forces – experiences that might be misleading, previous judgments or decisions that might be irrelevant, inappropriate self-interest or attachments – then you should not trust your gut. You need to do extra analysis or involve someone else (see my book Think Again).

    Andrew Luke’s description of his inability to decide appears initially to be because he is thinking too much. But his last comment “I feel pretty much ambivalent towards each possible choice” seems to reveal the true source of his difficulty – no strong emotional tags. Maybe he does not want to go to college at all. Maybe he does not like studying so his subconscious is giving him ambivalent signals about all the majors.

    This raises the question about whether Lisa GS’s daughter is really thinking too much or ambivalent. Sometimes when my wife asks me “do I want more desert”, I find it hard to answer because I have no positive or negative emotional trigger. Maybe my mind was focused on something else. But this is not the prime reason. It is just that I do not know what to answer.

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