Decision making – or when we think we're making one…

This article is 4 days old, but I’ve only just gotten around to write about it. I’m sorry if that makes you feel left behind… Bryan Appleyard writes for the Times, blogs and Twitters and I follow him everywhere, not like a stalker, more like an admirer :-)

The article is about how we make decisions – or rather how we think we make decisions, when in reality we aren’t really. Here’s a couple of quotes (the article is in fact a review of this book, which is now (also!!!!) on my Amazon wishlist):

I once bought a pair of shoes that didn’t fit. I blame my brain. I was a victim of a dopamine rush. That pesky neurotransmitter had been primed by previous shopping highs to flood my brain with the desire to take another hit. High as a kite, I made a stupid decision. I knew the shoes didn’t fit as I was buying them and, a few days later, too ashamed to go back to the shop, I chucked them away.

I learnt nothing from this. I still chuck away almost new stuff. This is because dopamine is stronger than my will. It likes the shopping high and there’s no way it’s going to let my pathetic ideas of common sense, rationality or correct shoe size get in the way.

This doesn’t happen to me, I hear you say (I heard myself say that). I make rational decisions while shopping, I never buy things I don’t need (!!!).

The message here is: decisions are never what we think they are. Western civilisation has laboured under a delusion that runs from Plato to Lieutenant Commander Data, the robot in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The delusion is that suppressing our emotions is the best way to make decisions. Data has no emotions and makes perfect decisions. When they give him an “emotion chip”, he breaks down, unable to decide anything.

One of the things that this “infuriatingly young” (Appleyard’s words) scientists points out is that the dopamine is in fact rational, we just don’t have access to its rationale… Consider this:

Well, first, be careful what you say to your children. An experiment by the psychologist Carol Dweck in New York City schools involved giving children tests in which there was only one variable. After the test some were told they were clever; others were congratulated for working hard.

Those told they were clever slumped into a kind of intellectual torpor; those told they had worked hard bounded ahead. In one group the scores of those called clever dropped by 20% and the scores of those called hard-working rose by 30%. There’s a big point here about how they chose: they self-corrected. While the clever group thought all they had to do was turn up, the hard workers considered their own mistakes.

Enough quotes – read the article (it’s not that long) or the book. I will, eventually, when I’ve read the 9 books on my night stand, the three books for my Bachelor paper and the ??? other books on my Amazon wishlish

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