The key to making good decisions lies in understanding how our automatic thinking system interacts with our controlled system, and how to use both effectively by Andy Gibson
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There is an old philosopher’s joke, often attributed to 14th century French theologian Jean Buridan, about a perfectly logical donkey. This unfortunate animal, affectionately known as Buridan’s Ass, is placed equidistant between two identically-sized piles of hay, and starves to death. With no reason to pick one pile over the other, it simply cannot choose.
We are not like the logical donkey. Unlike Buridan’s Ass, our minds have evolved to take action. Rather than being perfectly rational in our choices, we are surprisingly emotional, making quick choices, taking action and moving on with our days.
Indeed, without emotions, we struggle to get anything done. Research conducted with patients with brain damage showed that people who lost their emotional systems also lost the ability to make even the most minor choices. They could think through the options, but like the logical donkey, they never knew when it was time to stop thinking and take action.
One mind, two systems.
That’s not to say we are not capable of making thoughtful and considered choices. It’s just that we are also designed to make quick, instinctive decisions when we need to. Our minds seem to operate two distinct systems of thought, each useful in different situations. Research by psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Keith Stanovich on these two systems of thought have revolutionized how we think about how we think. One system – let’s call it the “automatic” system – is designed to make quick choices based on previous experience, deciding when to cross the road, answering familiar questions we’ve heard before, undertaking all the basic operations of the day. We then have a second system – a “controlled” system – which can consider decisions in more detail. Faced with an unfamiliar situation, or a choice that is particularly important, we can consider our instinctive response in more detail, and either stick with it or overrule it. The key to making good decisions, then, lies in understanding how these two types of thinking interact, and how to use them effectively.
The first thing to understand is that your automatic system is much more than a mindless choice machine. It is actually extremely smart, and forms a central part of cognition. We are constantly bombarded by confusing and conflicting information, and our automatic system filters all this for us and makes sense of it. It is where we multi-task, holding multiple things together and weighing up their relative merits, and deciding what deserves most attention.
Andy Gibson speaks about why understanding our minds is key for success
So if you thought smart decision making was just a matter of thinking things through properly, think again: most of your decisions are made without you even noticing, because your attention is elsewhere. Your automatic system also filters information for you when you are making a decision, screening out irrelevant details to help you focus your mind. So unless you are careful, you can make very thoughtful decisions based on the wrong evidence. Your automatic system also has an answer for everything, even if it knows nothing about the subject under consideration. Its job is to give you a default choice, based on what’s worked for you before, so you can take immediate action if you need to. This stops you from getting stuck, like the logical donkey. The trouble is that your automatic reactions can be fooled, either by prejudiced assumptions or by unrelated factors in your environment. We call these repeated mistakes in our automatic choices “unconscious bias”. Many things can cause you to make biased decisions. Some of these biases seem to be hard-wired into our minds, such as a preference for familiar things, or a tendency to overestimate positive outcomes and underestimate risks – a trait innocuously known as “optimism bias”.
Andy Gibson is the founder of Mindapples, which trains staff and managers, in some of the UK’s leading businesses, in mental wellbeing and performance, and a prominent campaigner for popular understanding of the mind and mental health. His latest book, A Mind for Business, a guide to making the most of your mind at work, is available now, published by Pearson. mindap.pl/amindforbusiness