The Decisive Moment

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book by Jonah Lehrer, “The Decisive Moment”, which I would recommend to anyone who is interested in how people make decisions or wants to make better decisions (about anything from shopping to playing poker to career planning).

“The Decisive Moment” summarises all the latest research from neuroscientists, who can now track which parts of the brain are being used in different types of decisions, and mixes this with really interesting anecdotes about good and bad decisions made, taken from sports, gambling, airlines, firefighting, shopping and financial planning.

It’s clear from the evidence that he presents that there is an important place in good decision-making for both intuitive “gut feelings”  and the more  rational decision-making processes, and they work best when used together.

Our intuitive responses to situations and decisions are based on the analysis made by the unconscious mind, which can compute thousands of factors, consider all our previous relevant experience and learning and put it all together, communicating this to the conscious mind with an emotional “gut feeling”, which we can then choose to follow or ignore.  This unconscious mind is an amazing thing, and we ignore it at our peril!

However, it is vulnerable to making certain kinds of mistakes and is easily taken in by clever advertising or sales techniques.  It favours instant gratification over long-term benefits.  It also looks for evidence to support beliefs already held, rather than being open to the unfamiliar.  It’s also rather “loss averse” so when a decision is framed in terms of loss (e.g. the money you will lose if you buy something) it tends to avoid the loss.  Intuitive decision-making works best when the decision-maker has a lot of relevant experience for the unconscious mind to draw on.

We can either act immediately on our intuitive feelings, or we can choose to stop and use the conscious, rational part of our mind (the prefrontal cortex) to analyse them further, looking at the pros and cons of the decision.  The rational part of our mind is very good at logical and mathematical decisions, and is less vulnerable to being taken in by advertising or pressure from others.  However, unlike the unconscious mind, which can analyse unlimited factors, the conscious mind can only look at a limited number of factors (about seven), so is less able to deal with very complex decisions.  It also finds it harder to put a value on how important certain factors are (for example, in buying a house, the conscious mind might not know which was of more value – a short commute or an extra bathroom).  Using the rational brain for complex decisions can lead to poorer decision-making.

So what is the best way to make really complex decisions?  Lehrer suggests that we should first do some work with the rational bits of our brain – listing all the options, listing the important factors, researching the options, gathering all the relevant information, doing the maths.  Then we should go on holiday, or do a relaxing activity that allows the conscious mind to forget about the decision, and let it “marinate” in the unconscious mind, so that an intuitive feeling can come to the surface.

Lehrer doesn’t mention any career decisions in his book, but there is clearly lots of relevance for career planning.  Most career decisions are very complex.  Choosing a university involves choosing the right course (both interesting, realistic and leading to the right career), choosing a good environment and making financial decisions.  Changing jobs involves a new job role, new colleagues, a new journey to work, changes in pay and conditions.  These are certainly complex decisions that the rational part of the brain would find difficult to accomplish alone.  To make these decisions, we need to make good use of our intuitive feelings and let the unconscious mind to a lot of the work for us.

However, that is not to say that we should unquestioningly go with our gut feeling, because intuitive feelings can lead us astray.  If intuitive feelings tend to prioritize short-term gratification over the long-term, we should be aware of this.  For example, if you are sixteen and you are offered the choice between a job in fast food place, paying the minimum wage, and an apprenticehsip with a mechanic leading to a qualification, but only paying a training allowance, you may  intuitively favour the instant gratification of the job and the better money.

The intuitive mind is also “loss averse” and if taking on a new job role or going to college is framed in terms of loosing friends, the intuitive mind may not go for it, preferring to keep the security of existing friends rather than leaping into the unknown.  Lehrer doesn’t talk much about peer pressure, but I am guessing (from his descriptions of how we respond to sales and advertising) that peer pressure may influence intuitive feelings about a decision, and again, this is something we should be wary of.

Lehrer suggests that if we want to get better at decision-making, we need spend more time analysing the decisions that make, so we can become better at knowing when to trust our intuitions and when not to.

A key part of a careers interview is often looking at past career decisions made, to see what can be learnt from them.  Were they made on the basis of gut feeling?  Was it a logical, pros and cons analysis?  Or did the client just “go with the flow” or follow advice from others.  If previous decisions haven’t worked out too well, the careers adviser may ask the client what they would do differently next time.  Typical answers include finding out more about a course or subject before choosing it, or paying less attention to what friends say, which suggests that some poor career decisions (particularly from younger people who have less experience to draw on) are based on using gut feeling without enough rational analysis and research to draw on.

However, many adult clients are very satisfied with “gut feeling” career decisions, perhaps because they do have more life experience to draw on and use.  The most common flaw that adults seem to find in their previous decisions is too much “going with the flow” rather than taking control of things.  This may be because the intuitive mind favours the instant gratification of the familiar rather than plunging into the unknown.

Another aspect of the book which I found interesting is the research into how the intuitive mind handles complex tasks well, when the performer is very experienced ~(Lehrer uses the example of an opera singer) – and when that experienced performer starts to think more consciously about what they are doing the performance goes down hill.  Inexperienced performers, however, do better when they use their conscious mind.

This got me to thinking about the training of Careers Advisers, and why it is that when experienced Careers Advisers start to analysis what they do in Careers Interviews, they often do less well than when they just get on with it.  In contrast, trainee Careers Advisers (and Careers Advisers learning new skills) do need to use the rational, conscious part of the their brain to introduce the skills and tactics they are taught, because they are not embedded in the unconscious mind.  It’s a bit like driving a car – once you start thinking about parallel parking, you just can’t do it any more!

I found this book really thought-provoking and it got me to thinking about all sorts of decisions I have made – from moving house and changing jobs to the more trivial shopping choices.  It should be required reading for Careers Advisers and anyone who is interested in making better decisions.

I wonder if anyone has done similar research specifically on career decision making (if they haven’t, then it would be really interesting area for further research).

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