Do you decide rationally or emotionally?

August 4, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Evolutionary Psychology, Nature

One of this blog’s central focuses is self-awareness because I think to improve your life and relationships the best starting point is to know where you are. Know thyself, in other words.

Today I want to give you a way to learn deeply about how your mind works. I didn’t come up with the idea, but it intrigues me and I’d love to learn other people’s thoughts.

I think people generally believe they have a voluntary, rational part of their brain that, among its roles, makes decisions.

If you’re choosing what to order off a restaurant menu, for example, you probably do something like this:

  1. You read your options,
  2. eliminate those you don’t want,
  3. consider the ones you do,
  4. work through some core decision-making process, and
  5. choose the dish you want.

Other choices go through similar processes. The key point is that we consider what I called “some core decision-making process” voluntary and rational.

I’ve read that some psychologists (sorry I can’t remember sources) suggest that this “core decision-making process” isn’t voluntary and rational, but happens involuntarily. Your conscious awareness somehow gets the idea it chose when it actually follows what another part of your mind did.

I thought this idea ludicrous when I first heard it, but since then it’s begun making more sense. In particular, you choose your behavior every moment and rarely notice. For example, I could continue writing, switch to another task, go to the kitchen to eat, go to the bathroom, or countless other things. I’ve chosen to keep writing. You’re choosing to keep reading. But neither of us thinks much about it. It happens automatically from the perspective of our voluntary, rational thought.

No big deal, we think. We couldn’t have evolved had our minds required focused attention on everything we do all the time. Of course we have systems that automatically choose in most simple situations.

So why would we think we work differently for more complex choices? It seems plausible to me that the same automatic mechanism chooses for us in complex situations. What makes a choice complex, after all, seems mainly that the options have difficult-to-distinguish values. Values are based in our subjective emotions, not in any absolute. Because we inherited the same emotional systems from our ancestors, many values seem universal, but no two people share all the same values, meaning no two people react the same to everything.

In easy cases — like if you would rather someone give you twenty dollars cash or a punch in the nose — I think our emotional systems choose without our voluntary or rational involvement.

I’m tending to think that in hard cases — like if you’d rather have the indulgent but unhealthy dish you’ve wanted so long and feel or deserve or the responsible and healthy dish you’d feel better about after eating it; or like if you should take the well-paying apparently stable job at the big company or the high-risk-high-potential exciting job at the start-up — that you decide the same way. However much data you collect and factors you weigh, ultimately the choice gets made automatically.

I’m beginning to agree you do what feels right and your conscious mind gets fooled into thinking it did it.

Try paying attention to how your mind works when you choose. People use brain-scanning machines to try to observe what parts of your brain fire in what order to get data on this question, but you can more directly observe how your brain works just by paying attention to it.

I suggest that directly observing subtle workings of your mind like this will reveal about yourself — that is, increase your self-awareness — more than you thought possible. Likely more than today’s outside technology can reveal.

I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts and observations. Or to learn places I can learn more of other people’s observations.

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