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How Can We Make Better Decisions? Brain science helps redefine decision-making

An excerpt from an interesting article highlighting some of the recent findings of brain science on making better decisions:

Alex Pouget, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, has shown that people do indeed make optimal decisions-but only when their unconscious brain makes the choice.

…Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University and author of the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, argues that willpower plays a part in all our decisions and that willpower fluctuates. Ask people to name their greatest strengths and they'll often cite things as honesty, kindness, humor, courage or other virtues. Surprisingly, self-control or willpower came dead last among virtues being studied by research with over 1 million people.

The most successful people, Baumeister contends, don't have super-strong willpower when making decisions. Rather, they conserve their willpower by developing habits and routines, so they reduce the amount of stress in their lives. He says these people use their self-control or willpower not to get through crises, but avoid them. They make important decisions early before fatigue sets in. Steven Pinker, and a world-renowned cognitive scientist at Harvard, contends, in an article in The New York Times, reviewing Baumeister's work, “Together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life.”

Angelika Dimoka, Director of The Center for Neural Decision-Making at Temple University, conducted studies to see what happens when people's decision-making abilities are overtaxed. She found rational and logical prefrontal cortex functioning declined when it become overloaded with information and as a result, subjects in her experiments began to make stupid mistakes and bad choices. “With too much information,” says Dimoka, “people's decisions make less and less sense.”

…Science writer Sharon Begley, writing in Newsweek, says that experts advise, “dealing with emails and texts in batches, rather than in real time; that should let your unconscious decision making system kick in. Avoid the trap of thinking that a decision requiring you to assess a lot of complex information is best made methodically and consciously. You will do better, and regret less, if you let your unconscious turn it over by removing yourself from the info flux.” In other words, learn to switch off the information flow. Second, learn how to use your emotions productively in making your decisions. In a sense, your brain won't allow you to do otherwise.

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Interested in learning more? You might like Willpower, How We Decide, and Thinking, Fast and Slow.