Decision Making 101

Last week I mentioned the scholarly book,  The Rise of Homo Sapiens: The evolution of modern thinking, written by our friend Fred Coolidge and his colleague, Tom Wynn. This week’s read has been a popular book (also about the brain and cognition) titled How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.  Both books focus on the executive functions of the brain. The Rise of Homo Sapiens explores how those functions may have developed and evolved and How We Decide focuses on how we utilize the Executive — both important issues in psychology and neuropsychology.

Not surprisingly, one of the most crucial responsibilities of the Executive is to decide not to behave, that is, to withhold or inhibit action. When I decide not to emit an expletive, even though I am angry, to avoid further inflaming a confrontation, I have utilized that part of the brain which makes me human…the one that keeps me from behaving purely on the basis of my emotions. The prefrontal cortex allows me to inhibit behaviors that might be destructive to me and to others.

On the other hand, when I am in a situation where it is perfectly safe to respond in a purely emotional fashion, that same Executive sometimes keeps me from doing so. Rather than taking a deep breath and enjoying a sensory experience, such as a bicycle ride, to its fullest, my prefrontal cortex questions how much pollen is in the air today and complains of the humidity that makes the air seem so heavy. Sometimes, we cannot do even the simplest of things without analyzing every aspect of, and all the implications for, that behavior.

It sometimes seems to me that our country is filled with people who have not learned how to moderate or inhibit behaviors. They see or hear the statement of some other person and cannot help but react. Their Executive does not kick in until they have already done their knee-jerk reaction. Then they either regret their comment or spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing or defending it so they can feel justified.

I used to think it was just pundits, bloggers, news analysts and elected officials who reacted without benefit of the Executive, but as I read the newspaper and see the comments of my neighbors to events in our community, I become more and more convinced that we have not effectively learned when it is best to behave on the basis of our emotions and when some logic would be more useful. We may have evolved the brain structures and capacities that allow us to behave in balanced fashion, but we seem as a nation to do a poor job of educating ourselves on how to utilize those abilities toward the general good. I usually don’t even read rants any more…and I’m doing my best to avoid reading pieces written by the Chicken Littles of the world. My own tendency toward negative emotions and thinking needs lots of logical balance plus the input of other folks who always see the glass as half full.

In the world of behavioral health services and practice, I sometimes see my colleagues and customers fail to utilize the executive functions of the brain to best advantage. Some impulsively rush to action taking a bit of information provided and implementing suggestions therein immediately. “The stimulus bill says we need to buy CCHIT certified EMRs, so we are doing so now! No, the ones we see are not designed for behavioral health. No, they are not particularly easy to use. But we will have a certified EMR.” Some behave in just the opposite fashion. They do not like the message they hear, so they avoid information about it. They withhold response to the extent that they do not inform themselves about the choices they will have to make in the future. “It will be ten years before anything actually happens. I’ll retire before that goes into effect. None of this pertains to me.” Somewhere in between lies a moderated response that may include ‘wait and see’, but informs itself in the time spend waiting and seeing. 

How We Decide is a good read. It might remind you of some of your own decision making strengths and weaknesses.

How do you decide to comment on this and other blog articles or not to do so? Let us hear what you have to say. Just click on the title of this article and enter your comment in the box at the bottom of the page. Your thoughts are always welcome, whether modulated by the Executive or not!

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