How do we really make most of our decisions?

How do we really make most of our decisions?

You might struggle to accept this, but it turns out that we make almost all of our decisions emotionally, and then justify them with logic. So how can this insight help us in our day to day decision making at work or at play?

True or false: ‘We make most of our decisions rationally’

Most of us would answer ‘True’. Yet, interestingly, we also struggle to understand how other people seem to make so many irrational decisions.

Can you remember a time when you presented a watertight proposal or offer – be it business or personal – where there was absolutely no way the other person could say no, or turn you down?

· You couldn’t see how there was any other logical solution or option.

· You had all the facts, logic and numbers backing you up.

· You were certain the other person just couldn’t say no.

Yet, when you’d finished your presentation, ‘no’ is exactly the answer you got. They turned you down. Your watertight logic and reasoning somehow failed. You were surprised at their decision and almost certainly frustrated. How could they be so illogical? You re-ran the whole discussion, or presentation, in your head afterwards. This only reinforced the ‘fact’ that they’d made the wrong decision.

How could that have possibly happened?

We like to think that we’re rational. We’ve been told for years that emotions hinder our ability to make good decisions. We like to believe we’re in total control of our decisions.

Reality! What a concept.

Robin Williams

The surprising truth about the way we really make decisions

You might struggle to accept this, but it turns out that we make almost all of our decisions emotionally, and then justify them with logic. Our brains are so good at it we don’t even know we’re doing it.

There is a constant struggle going on inside us between emotion and logic; between intuition and reason.

In his book 7 Trigger to Yes – The New Science Behind Influencing People’s Decisions – Russell Granger tells us that “Emotions not only guide our decisions and actions, but without emotions we are incapable of making decisions”.

Granger explains that we make decisions either analytically or automatically. When we make a decision analytically we use reason and logic. When we make a decision automatically, we use our internal self-guidance system.

Our internal self-guidance system is the subconscious ‘Google maps’ navigation system that helps us pilot our way through our daily lives and activities. It helps us do it in a way we could never manage if we had to use a rational, cognitive, evaluative approach for all our decisions and actions.

Granger goes on to say that for “all of the people most of the time and most of the people all of the time we are in automatic mode”. Meaning, that we make most of our decisions below our conscious level of awareness.

Richard Restak is an American neurologist, neuropsychiatrist, author and professor. In his book The Secret Life of the Brain, he states: “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think”

Right about now, you may well be thinking “No way! Not me! I’m a rational person; I make my decisions rationally using conscious thought”

But we don’t. For most decisions we don’t. Not me, not you, not any of us.

We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.

Richard Restak

Why does the brain work like this?

Well here’s one of the keys that might help us understand why…Thinking hurts!

It’s not that we can’t and don’t make decisions with the conscious thinking part of our brain (the Neocortex) it’s just that it’s slow and hard work.

Professor Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in behavioral economics, has identified two thinking systems that provide a model to explain much of the way we operate.

System 1 is fast, automatic and intuitive and mainly hidden to the conscious mind.

System 2 is the deliberate, logical part of your mind that can analyse a problem and deliver a rational solution. It’s the part of your mind that you are aware of. It's great at solving problems, but is slow, takes effort, can only focus on one problem/task at a time, needs lots of energy, and is exceptionally lazy.

System 1 is where we operate most of the time. This is because every day we must make a massive number of decisions, small and large. If we had to consciously process them all, we’d never get anything done.

Our brains look for shortcuts to help make decisions with the least amount of effort.

These shortcuts are our ‘gut’ feelings, the good and bad senses we get, the snap judgments and intuitive decisions we make all the time. They happen when we meet someone new; get a feeling for someone’s mood; consider what we should eat for lunch today, weaken and decide that the healthy salad can wait for another day (feeling trumps logic), and so on right through our day.

So, not only is emotion not a hindrance to our decisions, but rather facts, logic and reason really aren’t good enough most of the time.

Ouch….so does that mean we make most of our decisions unconsciously, without rational thought because it’s easy, automatic and fast? And that we don’t even know we’re doing it most of the time? Yes, that’s exactly what the neuroscience is telling us. It’s telling us we actually couldn’t survive without this ability.

This is why we face the challenges, mentioned at the start, with our watertight ‘reasoned’ proposals. It’s difficult for all of us to change from our default mode; from our fast, intuitive decision making system, to our relatively slow, logical system that takes effort and energy. And it’s just as hard for the person you’re trying to influence.

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.

Henry Ford

Read more: A little known influence approach to sidestep resistance

How could they ever make a good decision then?

Well just because we’re not making the decision with our thinking brain doesn’t mean we can’t make good decisions. In fact, as Malcolm Gladwell covers in great detail in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, we can make outstandingly good decisions automatically and without knowing specifically how we made them.

With broad and deep knowledge on a subject:

· Art experts can spot forgeries that the scientists couldn’t confirm.

· Firefighters can make life and death decisions in an instant to save their colleagues.

· Experienced university students can tell how good a lecturer is after seeing a two-second video clip. Their answers to a questionnaire rating the lecturer, almost perfectly matched the answers, to the same questionnaire, of students that the lecturer had taught all year.

Why do we operate like this?

Here’s a primer on how the brain works that might help to put all this into perspective.

We actually have three brains:

1 Reptilian brain – Survival

2 Limbic brain – Emotion

3 Neocortex – Thinking

Each part developed during a different era of our evolution. Each one operates differently and separately from the others, but all three are interconnected.

The Reptilian and Limbic brains correspond to our unconscious mind (Professor Kahneman’s System 1 thinking). The Neocortex is our conscious mind and corresponds to System 2 thinking.

Reptilian Brain (Survival)

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This was the first brain to develop. It’s our instinctive brain, responsible for survival, mating and feeding. It controls our movement, breathing and heartbeat. It’s concerned with territory, social dominance, and “fight or flight” situations.

It is rock solid trying to keep us alive and promote the species. Its behaviors are primarily unconscious and automatic. It’s the part of us that tends to be compulsive and highly resistant to change. Reptiles and lizards have this brain.

Limbic Brain (Emotion)

This was the second brain to develop. It’s our emotional or feeling brain. It is wrapped around the reptilian brain and developed with the first mammals. It is responsible for emotions and plays a major role in memory. It adds some control to the automatic mode of the reptilian brain.

It pulls us towards things that feel good (pleasure) and away from things that feel bad (emotional pain). It’s the active brain when we’re feeling anger, fear, happiness, sadness or any of the other emotions.

It’s where we connect feelings to things that have happened – or might happen. Such as feeling excited anticipation of your next holiday, or anxious about that important meeting tomorrow.

It is dominant when relating to another person. It is where our value judgments, that wield such a strong influence on our behaviour, are made. It mostly functions subconsciously so we’re not aware of its influence.

Neocortex (Thinking)

This was the last brain to develop. It's the rational or thinking part of our brain. It sits above and around the limbic system. The Neocortex is responsible for language, planning, visualisation, and all logical/rational control.

It is divided into the two sides known as the “right” and “left” brain, which are joined by the corpus callosum.

There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.

Malcolm Gladwell

How can this help us?

Input comes to the brain from our five senses. And it’s a massive amount of information; too much to process consciously.

That information is processed from the bottom up, in sequence, through the three brains

· First for survival (instinctively ducking when something is thrown at you)

· Then through emotion (fear, anger, surprise before any conscious thought)

· Finally to conscious thought (who threw that at me?).

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It’s this bottom up processing that’s the likely cause when we fail to get someone to see our point, when we try to reason with them. Their processing didn’t make it past the limbic (emotional) brain. It didn’t make it to the place where your reasoned approach could be heard.

Think about how you made the decision to choose the watch you wear, the home you live in, the car you drive, the lunch you had, or your favorite eating place. Chances are you can give someone a list of rational reasons for those choices. But if you ask yourself “what’s the real reason I made those decisions?” Isn’t it more than those rational reasons?

· My watch suits my style (emotional), although I’d really love a Rolex or a TAG Heuer (emotional). It’s not just a time keeper (logical) otherwise we’d buy a $5 digital watch.

· The car looks great (emotional), drives great (emotional) and fits my status (emotional). It’s not just a vehicle to get us from A to B economically and safely (logical).

· Buying this house means I can get my kids into the school I want (emotional). It’s not just a roof over our heads (logical).

· Our favourite restaurant has a great buzz (emotional), the staff and service are excellent (emotional). It’s not just a place to refuel (logical).

So how do we get people to listen to and be open to our proposal with its reasoned approach?

· Understand and accept that we all must, and do, make most of our decisions unconsciously – i.e. not with our rational, logical mind.

· Be aware that it is the limbic (emotional) brain that is dominant when we’re relating to another person - both for them and for us.

· The key is not to try to convince your audience, because that initiates resistance to your attempt to influence – i.e. fight or flight. The key is to connect with them.

· Rather than leap in with facts and figures and a reasoned argument, look, to understand what motivates, what drives them, what their fears and aspirations are.

· Look first to connect with them, and create an environment where they can feel receptive and open rather than resisting your message.

· Paint word pictures to make it easy for them to see the problem (emotional) your solution solves

· Then offer them relief (emotional) with your solution options (no more than three options)

· Then help ease the cognitive, evaluative, heavy lifting they have to do with their thinking brain to choose a solution. Do this by showing how your recommended solution is the obvious best one from the options.

To sum up

· We make most of our decisions below the level of conscious thought.

· This this is necessary for us to function and live our lives with the enormous number of decisions and assessments we have to continually make as we go through our day.

· Conscious, cognitive, logical, evaluative thought is hard work and we prefer not to do it unless it’s necessary.

This introduces challenges when we try using logic and reason alone to influence others, or even to get them to see our point of view.

· Make it easier and more comfortable for you and them, by connecting on a personal level and setting the environment, before attempting to present or persuade.

· Create an emotional reason to listen to you (the problem), present no more than three possible solutions and make your recommendation easy for them to select using their logical brain.

Congratulations, your emotional brain let you put aside your disbelief and let you get this far. Hopefully your rational brain isn’t fighting too hard with your emotional brain over denying this idea is even possible let alone accurate…good luck with that fight.

  • Richard Restak – The Secret Life of the Brain
  • Russell Granger - 7 Trigger to Yes – The New Science Behind Influencing People’s Decisions
  • Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Campbell Such is GM IT for Bidvest, a wholesale food distribution business and a top 50 company in NZ. He has a varied career in New Zealand and internationally, working in technology, management and roles in marketing and sales. Reach him at and through his blog.

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