At the turn of a new decade, many Americans continue to seek out innovative ways to enhance their lives and acquire a fresh reset into this next year. Our voices narrate stories about ourselves that are responsible for conveying the sincere complexity of choice. Each day presents itself with both enduring opportunity and impacting emotionality in relation to the behavioral economics of decision science, a growing research field in psychology and management. Our day-to-day decisions create a lasting effect upon our formation of habits, emotional regulation, and even cultural bias. Our major life decisions that stem from core values will typically preserve positive outcomes. Whether we are logical thinkers oriented around purpose and meaning that give us an unfailing sense of direction or led by a more intuitive thought life rooted in the reality of perception, decisions emerge that either generate joy, sustain indifference, or accelerate suffering.
Decision-making has an endless volume of representation in many spheres of life including: medical diagnosis and treatment, financial well-being, life philosophy, legal judgment, statistical analysis, intelligence reflection, city architecture, construction management, and military strategy among many other fields. When decisions emerge from rational thought, normally sound outcomes result for the benefit of all. Yet, decisions that have intuitive preferences tend to violate rational thought and conclude with far-reaching consequences. Rather than being omniscient and clear-headed for making daily decisions, we often make decisions within the constraints of imperfect conditions that prevent us from thinking about consequences all the way through. Choices are regularly constrained with previous choices, facts remain unchecked, emotions are ignored, and consequences appear misunderstood. This is all part of the complexity in the decision-making matrix as a natural process everyone must navigate.
Professional decision-making processes are used to successfully venture through a complex decision. History has been rife with many decision-making processes. One form includes mid-nineteenth century Paris in which architects worked en charette in that they would revise their product design until the very last minute, even on the horse carriage ride to the site of proposal until they would present before a panel of judges. This process forced interdisciplinary collaboration with others in different fields to work unified as a team, receive feedback from others outside of the team, and then revise and regroup multiple times until a final decision would occur. This decision-making process can be effective when working with others that have different (and maybe opposing) core values and priorities to see multiple viewpoints. Another form includes scenario-planning in which multiple stakeholders of a team envision several possible future outcomes using a ‘decision map’ and achieve foreseeable futures based on a ‘decision tree.’ Rather than experiencing the poverty of an individual imagination, there is an entire team of collaborators that contribute to the next steps and discover more possibilities.
Cognitive and social psychologists identify the basic elements of the decision-making process into a two-systems approach as a distinction between automatic mental operations of System 1 and the controlled and deliberate mental operations of System 2. Without intention and significant effort, memory is stored and accessed and the mental activity of decision-making becomes fast, automatic, and involuntary in System 1. Skills such as reading, maneuvering through strong chess moves, and acknowledging the nuances of social situations are all part of this system of mental activity. With the need to access automatic memory and attention, more effort is applied as a function of having a mental budget that uses a certain capacity for ‘paying attention’ in System 2. Using this systems language as a framework allows for a richer discussion about the mind with the automatic and unconscious processes that are intertwined with effective decision-making.
Understanding optimal brain health is required for effective decision-making. Recent findings have confirmed that student performance decreases on standardized assessments when there is a drop in blood glucose levels, creating a mental fatigue. The human brain typically uses 15-20% of blood glucose levels for various daily neural activities; when the storehouse of blood glucose becomes depleted, cognitive slips and impulsive actions abound. As the hours progress within the day, test scores are seen to decrease by .9% every hour according to the study. Similar to muscle groups that experience fatigue after an intense workout, brain areas in the middle frontal gyrus experience brain fatigue and maintain difficulty with storage, access, and retrieval of memory and decision-making.
Here are several important strategies to form healthy decisions for the new decade:
- Gain self-awareness of your internal state: When under duress or confronted with limited time, making an impulsive decision is not ideal. If possible, maintain meaningful efforts toward stress reduction and extend the time you have available to make decisions. On occasion you may have to make decisions quickly and without all of the information. This alone can increase stress because we intuitively know it is riskier. Given no other option, make a decision that will cost you the least in that moment. This can help buy time and minimize the cost of a poor decision.
- There is more: Situations can always be better even if you do not need to make a decision immediately. You need not wait for the “best” to make a move. Assessing your range of options and slowly exploring new situations can assist you in updating your information and make rational decisions. The upside of this approach is that when the time comes and you do need to make a decision quickly, you will have accurate and up-to-date insights that can provide a buffer against uncertainty.
- Get as much information as possible: Naively making decisions usually ends in a fate of poor outcomes. While there may be limitations to the level of accessibility for knowledge, it becomes beneficial to accumulate as much knowledge as possible to increase the probability of making the best decision.
- Be deliberate and take your time: According to behavioral economics, we are more likely to make a riskier choice when under an applied time pressure. If a decision has multiple long-term consequences with complex elements, then more time is needed to think through it more completely. Short deadlines and applied time pressures can release System 1, our automatic thought process, to take over for a fast decision.
- Re-consider your personal biases: More often than not, a ‘directional bias’ can occur in the decision-making process in which this causes us to automatically make ‘true’ a decision before we deliberate on the information, facts, and options that are evident. Making important decisions will require an openness and vulnerability to all possibilities in the decision-making process.
- When undergoing the decision-making process, it is usually seen as a problem-solving exercise in which you are achieving a solution to an emotional or practical problem. Brainstorming through the shoulds, wants, values, means, and end outcomes of various dilemmas are part of the decision-making process that will help to free you in making a wise choice in the end that will sift through fears and needs and assist in designing the life you desire.