Understanding How We Decide

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Understanding How We Decide

In 1637, René Descartes published his Discourse on the Method,1introducing concepts that would form the underpinnings of the Age of Reason.  In many ways, the way we think today has been shaped by concepts put forth in "the Discourse."  For example, we take it for granted that we are rational beings and that we are capable of thinking things through and making rational decisions. 

Descartes' method was simple, and the way we think about decision-making today is similar and equally simple.  To make a decision, you take in information from the world using whatever sources you can find.  You combine that information with what you already know — historical data or previous experience.  Then you reach a conclusion and do something about it.  Decisions always result in behavior of some sort.  It all sounds very rational.

Yet, in recent years, advances in brain science, spurred by new technology, have begun to shock us with the realization that even the most rational of us can be irrational at times.  Neuro-scientist Joseph LeDoux in his book The Emotional Brain,2 for example, demonstrated that much of the time people do things for reasons that they can't understand and then make up rational-sounding explanations for their behavior. 

Another neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, showed that, contrary to what Plato and Descartes told us, emotion is essential for making decisions.  For that reason, Damasio's best-selling book is titled Descartes' Error.3  Synthesizing some of this recent research in his book How We Decide,4 Jonah Lehrer wrote:  "Reason without emotion is impotent."

Henry James, known as the "father of psychology," was the first to start attacking the Platonic view of man as a perfectly rational animal with none of the instincts that we associate with lower animals.  Moreover, James put forth the idea that these instincts were not necessarily a bad thing but, quite the contrary, they were essential for making the brain work efficiently.  His view was that the brain had two main modes of operation:  the rational and the emotional. 

Reason is a deliberate, step-wise process that requires conscious effort, and emotion is fast and effortless.  The best decisions are made when the two are blended in a perfect balance, as they are when a baseball pitcher or a PGA golfer is on his game.  The same is true when a CEO is on his game.

When either reason or emotion is lacking, decisions can go wrong...

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