with No Comments

Post No.: 0549decisions


Furrywisepuppy says:


During decision conflicts, different cognitive networks are competing with each other – for example, reason versus emotion, satisfying our present versus our future desires, reading the word or the colour of the word in a Stroop test, or reacting to the colour or the position of an object or word in a Simon task. The latter couple of examples have implications for how we should design products better so that they’re more cognitively ergonomic, intuitive and less confusing to use.


Resolving decision dilemmas such as in the trolley problem involves conflict too, where pulling the lever employs a simple logic network but pushing the person off the bridge with your own hands employs a network that involves emotions. This issue is relevant regarding why ‘white collar’ crimes can feel more ‘victimless’ and deserve less punishment than ‘blue collar’ crimes even though the victims and costs of white collar crimes can be so much greater, why beheadings can feel more terrible than drone strikes even though the latter can result in lots of collateral damage, or why cyberbullying can seem more distant and detached and thus easier to commit than face-to-face bullying.


It’s as if we’re not so much an individual but many different parts or networks that are sometimes in conflict with each other, hence why we can seem to ‘argue with ourselves’ at times.


We may think that we’re always making reasoned decisions but emotion is actually vital for even making many of the simplest of everyday decisions – without emotions linking with our logic networks to break a deadlock, we can literally be stuck in mental limbo when trying to process and make a decision, such as which jam or cheese to go for out of the dozens available in a supermarket(!) We say go for whatever you fancy rather than whip out a spreadsheet! Rationally and objectively speaking, how does one deem an apple or an orange as better than the other? Or a swing compared to a roundabout? It’s precisely apples and oranges, swings and roundabouts! So without ‘irrational’ emotions, or decisions that aren’t based on any calculations but just gut feelings, we can quite literally get stuck when making even seemingly simple day-to-day decisions. Having said that – people who rely heavily on their emotions when making decisions can be indecisive too when they have conflicting emotions.


It’s not just our brain in isolation – physiological processes all over our body are involved too, such as our current hormone levels. For instance, when we react on reflex, our bodies move before we know we’ve even made a decision to move at all – thus body and brain work together in making decisions and determining behaviours or actions.


Everything else being equal, parole will be more likely granted if the parole board members feel less hungry, such as just after their lunch break. This could be because, when they’re hungry, they’re experiencing more ‘ego depletion’ (less ability to exercise self-control) since making tough decisions all day is energy intensive and mentally taxing, or it’s because they’re ‘hangry’ (stressed and therefore angry and moodier and meaner for being hungry), or when low on energy we tend to go for the default choice (which in this case would be to not grant parole)? Whatever the reason, parole board members won’t likely realise or therefore admit that their decisions were influenced by how hungry they were. They’ll come up with rationalised justifications for their decisions. Yet experiments comparing hungry parole board members with less hungry ones have shown that contextual factors such as their state of hunger will have influenced them greatly!


Exercising brute self-control or willpower uses energy and therefore eventually runs out for all of us. This affects our ability to resist temptation, delay gratification, use our initiative, and make hard decisions. We therefore cannot rely on it alone and/or for sustained periods. Trying to curb our emotions uses willpower, which uses energy – we can even end up physically weaker or give up sooner in a physical task after trying to hold back our mental emotions when watching distressing footage of fluffy animals suffering. Mental and physical processes somewhat use a common pool of energy.


…Some later research disagrees with this model of mood and ego depletion though – arguing that it’s more to do with confounds such as cognitive dissonance in the experiments. Still – how many times have people said or understood that they shouldn’t do something yet they still couldn’t seem to fight the urge and did the thing anyway?! It might be something to do with our limited cognitive resources, mental fatigue or an individual’s executive function – but what I think isn’t in doubt is that contextual factors can affect our mental states and in turn decisions and behaviours enormously.


The lesson here is that we shouldn’t make tough or important decisions when we’re hungry, tired or otherwise stressed. How we think is intimately linked with how we feel. We tend to be kinder, more empathic, more helpful to others and more patient when our energy levels are high. Getting enough sleep each night is thus vital. Breakfast is therefore also an important meal. Woof.


The same thing – like a particular movie, game or going out – can seem fun, great, rubbish or uninteresting to us depending on our present mood. Yet we might credit or blame the activity alone and neglect to understand how our own circumstances played a role in shaping our experience of it. So we might think ‘those people were raucous’ rather than think ‘maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for them today’.


People who’ve faced a lot of upheaval in their lives often look back on their past selves and can realise how different they were to how they are today because they are in a better or worse place, physically and thus mentally, now. Another lesson is to therefore show more understanding of this and compassion towards others when we notice they’ve changed. It’s not just a simple case of them or us growing older.


Our genes affect our decisions too. Our political biases could be partly inherited via our DNA – if one experiences a more unconsciously-driven feeling of disgust to a stimulus (where one’s tolerance to perceived disgust or threats is partly genetic) then one will be more likely to have a more politically conservative leaning; or if one is more tolerant then one will be more likely to have a more politically liberal leaning.


Men unconsciously find women more attractive when they’re ovulating because their oestrogen levels are higher (the women that is!), which expresses via the radiance of their skin and their increased flirtatiousness, amongst other signals. Our unconscious feelings can figure out hunches of patterns way before our conscious self does. (Although we should bear in mind that not all perceived hunches/gut feelings of patterns are real patterns, such as perceiving order in purely random noise.)


This all demonstrates that even how hungry we feel, how cold the room is, whether we ‘got out of bed the wrong way’, our inherited DNA, and so on, will affect our judgements, beliefs and decisions – even though we’ll not always be aware of these influences acting upon us, or others, or we’ll not always be willing to admit that they’ve influenced us.


Other people naturally affect us too. If others are nice towards us, we’re more likely to reciprocate. If others bully us, we’ll more likely wish to hurt them in return. We’re ultimately influenced by everything – from the media, the crowd we’re in, what we’ve been taught, by drugs, whether we’re in love, in debt, in power, the opportunities or temptations we encounter, to how we’re treated by others and by life itself.


We’re barely in conscious control of ourselves – we’re barely even aware of what unconscious processes are controlling us at any moment. We’re not aware of most of the decisions we make each day – for example, deciphering what we’re seeing, hearing or smelling, whether to be afraid or not, whether to start walking by putting a left or right paw forward first, resisting or giving in to temptation, deciding when a snack attack comes and what we’ll fancy to eat or drink, who we’re attracted to, and so forth. These are all influenced by unconscious processes, drives, neurotransmitters and hormones.


Hormones aren’t always internally generated too – spraying oxytocin in the air can influence our feelings and therefore choices. So even our hormones can be directly externally manipulated without us knowing it!


According to this evidence, we are actually hardly conscious and rational decision-makers at all. We are hardly making logical and fair decisions all of the time. Yet whenever we decide on, say, a political stance, we’ll be convinced that we were being rational and decided based on our values and cold, hard reasoning. But what actually happens most of the time is that we later or post hoc build up a portfolio of sophisticated justifications or rationalisations for our decisions i.e. we’re typically acting more like attorneys trying to argue for a stance that we’ve already settled upon or desire (perhaps by unconsciously gauging and following what our current closest ingroup thinks) than honest and fair scientists trying to find evidence before settling upon any conclusion. These conclusions then solidify, reinforce and appear to have been impartially considered from the beginning. And every single decision we’ve ever made has cumulatively shaped us into the very individual we are today.


When trying to consciously and rationally weigh out options that will have different outcomes in the future – we’ll kind of try to simulate in our minds and guess what the costs and benefits of those outcomes will be in the future, and then we’ll try to work out what those costs and benefits are worth to us today; hence we’re discounting future (ideas of) gains and costs compared to more immediate and emotionally visceral gains and costs. These perceived expected values can adapt or change over time – for example, if we expected too much from an event one time and it ended up as a disappointment for us, we’ll reduce the expected value of a similar event in the future.


This enables us to come up with a way to prioritise different options. These processes are tied intimately with the hormone dopamine (which is involved in motivation and reward, memory and attention, amongst other functions). Our current level of dopamine unconsciously affects our expected level of reward and therefore motivation for doing a task or taking a risk. But too much leads to addictive behaviours, such as gambling or social media addiction.


Because we are prone to falling for present temptations, and because when we’re rational we’ll try to work out what something is worth to us today, we can utilise better strategies to fight temptations – like not having a distraction or temptation in our immediate environment or sight, or setting up ‘Ulysses contracts’, which involve binding ourselves to doing something so that the costs of not going through with it will be greater today. You could set up a meaningful wager with a friend that you’ll go to the gym every day otherwise you’ll forfeit that money immediately, or agree to go to the gym together and thus use social pressure to not wish to let the other person down by failing to go. This accountability strategy can work with your study goals too – by getting a study partner.


Woof! Willpower can still somewhat be trained though. Post No.: 0355 looked at how children can improve their ability to delay gratification. By pausing, practising the suppression of impulsive urges for progressively longer each time, and by trying to employ reasons to resist, we can improve our resistance over time. Like any kind of training, rehearsal or persistent, repeated action – it’ll eventually physically reshape our brain. In this case, to hopefully resolve the unconscious neural conflict between our impulsive urges and long-term goals.


Comment on this post by replying to this tweet:


Share this post