If you’ve ever found yourself needing to make a difficult decision, what’s likely causing you to struggle with your choice is that the alarm system of your brain, the limbic system, has made it clear to you that no matter what you choose, something “bad” is going to happen. Given the general reliability of our minds to predict the immediate future, it’s likely that these predictions of near future pain are reasonable and possible. And why would we choose pain? So in the moment we conclude that we can’t decide right now because we have no good options. So we hesitate. We defer. We ignore. We procrastinate. In reality though what this actually means is that by not actively choosing something new or different, we are passively choosing more of the same – to stay in our current circumstances. So one way or another, a decision has been made. The problem is that sometimes, not changing is the decision that causes more pain in the long run. And that’s not good.
Now this challenge only applies to difficult decisions, because with the easier decisions in life, this same part of our brain tells us that certain options may be “bad” but the others are safe enough, so we readily eliminate the harmful choices and decide between the “good” ones.
“That’s a rip off, buy these high quality and affordable products instead. Oh look, free shipping!”
“That smells rotten, why don’t you try this freshly prepared farm-to-table whole foods delicious cuisine with me.”
“I don’t know, that surgeon had shaky hands, let’s get a second opinion.”
No problems here. It’s only when it seems that all of our choices have some level of unavoidable unpleasantness, difficulty, or pain that we find ourselves struggling to act. However, this “easy choice” scenario does remind us that we do have the intuitive capacity to make “good” decisions, it’s just that our awareness of potential harm distracts us from our best judgment. So let’s talk about how we make judgments to begin with.
Our most basic judgment starts with our limbic system in the deeper parts of our brain. These types of judgments are more reactive, instinctual, are colored by our past experiences, and tend to be simplistic. Things are either “good” or “bad.” Since this same part of our brain also initiates many of our unpleasant emotions including fear, when we are more emotional our judgment tends to lean towards this kind of quick and dirty assessment of our situation. This type of fast decision making is important if you are in harm’s way and a quick decision is needed to get to safety. For example if we notice a coiled shape next to us while hiking in the mountains, our limbic system will tell us “maybe snake” and that maybe is enough to make us move to a safer location quickly. This can all happen even before we have a conscious awareness of what we thought we just saw. If that coiled shape turns out to actually be a venomous snake, this spontaneous and quick judgment helped us avoid harm, maybe even death. If that coiled shape turns out to be an oddly shaped rock, then obviously we weren’t really ever in danger and we did overreact, but “better safe than sorry.” And in circumstances like these, it’s logical that we would err on the side of caution because the consequence of being wrong when there is real danger is more severe than the consequences of being wrong when there’s no danger. In other words, it’s better to have a overly sensitive smoke alarm than it is to be trapped in a burning building. But admittedly, false alarms can be annoying. If we’re a lizard then this is the limit of our judgment and false alarms are the cost of survival of the species. If the shadow that passes by is a cloud or a predator, we run. Thankfully as human beings, we have other options that are more sophisticated so that we don’t have to make all our choices in this all or nothing fashion.
In our human brain we are capable of making a different kind of judgment. This is our intuition. Now many people think of intuition as an unsophisticated way of making decisions – “I feel it in my gut.” But in fact intuition may be one of the most complex functions of the human mind. Because when we use our intuition, we draw from the many differentiated abilities of our mind – our memories of past experiences, our logic, our awareness of our feelings and needs, our awareness of the feelings and needs of others. We also consider the availability of resources. We think about acceptable and unacceptable costs. We project a trajectory towards the future to predict probable outcomes. We lean on our sense of competency and autonomy as we trust in our ability to work through challenges through grit and creativity. Having considered all these pieces of information we then synthesize, balance, and integrate them and what comes out at the other end is likely to be our best judgment. This is our intuition. The more we practice our intuition, the more reliable it becomes. The more reliable our intuition, the better our overall judgment.
Now all these individual and differentiated functions are products of the more sophisticated parts of our mind. They either originate in our prefrontal cortex (the uniquely human part of our brain behind our eyes and large forehead) or they are coordinated there. The part of our brain that makes the “good or bad” judgments resides in the parts of our brain that we have in common with our animal kingdom cousins – the dog, the bird, the mouse, the lizard. Daniel Siegel, a Psychiatrist, author, and founder of the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, calls these different parts the “upstairs brain” (prefrontal cortex) and the “downstairs brain” (limbic system and brainstem). Nobel Prize winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes these processes as “thinking fast” and “thinking slow.” These well regarded Daniels agree that both parts of our brain are important for survival, wellbeing, and health. The “downstairs” and “fast” parts are protective, motivating, and form the foundations of our social selves. The “upstairs” and “slow” parts allow us to be more aware, thoughtful, analytical, connected, creative, engaged, regulated, empathetic, and moral. In other words, more human. Both Daniels also agree that it’s the coordination and integration of these different parts of mind that lead to living optimally.
Now back to difficult decisions. When we feel that we have no “good” options, it’s because our fast downstairs brain tells us that there is potential harm and pain in all of our available options. However, if we can think past that moment, and we can because our slow upstairs brain has the ability to halt impulses and soothe our fears, we can then use all of our mental resources to see some subtlety in terms of how bad and decide if it’s within our ability to handle them. Making this assessment then allows us to focus on the other parts of our available options. Here’s the interesting thing – if we can get to this part of the assessment, it’s usually pretty clear that one of our choices is actually better than the rest. It’s probably the one that’s realistic, allows us to grow and move forward, and is ultimately fulfilling to our long term needs. The other choices are likely to be too difficult, stagnating or even regressing, and more likely to make us feel better in the short term at the expense of long term growth or needs. When we view our choices through this lens of “what is best” we can then revisit those initial instincts that remind us of the realistic “bad” aspects of each of our choices. Now, with a greater clarity that our best choice leads to an inherently gratifying place of accomplishment, growth, and health, what once was judged as “bad” may now seem like worthwhile challenges to overcome, necessary pain to endure, difficulty to work through, problems to solve – for the sake of our future fulfillment.
In the last post, I described how a Doublethink technique – being ambitious about the future, and realistic about the challenges in the present, proves to be the best way to actually accomplish our goals. Between our upstairs and slow thinking brain, which helps us to articulate these positive future goals, and the valuable contributions of our downstairs and fast thinking brain, which helps us to see the realistic challenges in front of us – together they equip us to have the best chance of making real, meaningful change in our lives. Using our whole brain – that’s making good decisions.