The Neuroscience of Making More Intelligent Choices

By Ben Thomas

The Neuroscience of Making Better ChoicesThere is an actual science to making better choices in your life, and this article talks about how neuroscience has studied and devised three simple questions to help you catch yourself from being caught up in a state of self-deception.

Have you ever walked out of a store with a shiny new gadget and wondered, “Why did I buy this? I can’t afford it. I don’t need it. What made me buy it?” Maybe you’ve asked yourself similar questions after you broke your diet with a tempting dessert, or fell back into the arms of someone who broke your heart: “I knew I shouldn’t have done this. Why can’t I make smarter decisions?”

Neuroscientists have studied questions like these for decades, and they’ve produced a wealth of answers, as well as some tips to catch yourself in the midst of self-deception. Here are three simple ways to avoid deceiving yourself, and turn bad decisions into learning experiences.

Find your Biases and Work With Them

We’ve all got biases — conscious and unconscious — and there’s no getting away from them. We trust some news sources more than others; we rush to judgment on issues that inflame our passions; we remember statistics that support our views, while conveniently forgetting facts that undermine our beliefs.

Most of use are unaware of our biases, a wide variety of studies have revealed, but they influence our decisions every day. What’s more, the most successful achievers tend to be the least aware of their biases, and the most overconfident in the rightness of their positions. In other words, the more world-changing power a person has, the more biased that person tends to be.

The good news is that once you’re aware of your own biases, you’re in a much better position to work with them, rather than being misled by them. The human brain comes loaded with handy tools for catching biases in action as you ponder a choice.

“Unlike most animals, we humans have the ability to be self aware, to self regulate,” says Teagan Wall, a PhD behavioral neuroscientist . Be aware of the things that make you happy and the things you’re inclined to overindulge in. Then, consciously take those tendencies into account when you’re making decisions.

“Make sure those desires aren’t just running on autopilot in the background,” Wall explains. “Bring them to front of your mind, acknowledge them, and stay aware of them as you make your decision.”

Take a look at this list of common biases, and see if you can catch any of them in your mind next time you’re thinking through an important choice.

Fit Your Thinking Style to the Task

Some psychology experts claim that people make more accurate decisions when they disregard intuition and think analytically. Intuition, these researchers say, leads to easy conclusions rather than accurate ones, which makes it dangerous. Other studies, however, found exactly the opposite effect — that intuition leads to more accurate decisions than detached analysis does. The truth about good decision-making may be somewhere in the middle: A growing body of research argues that the most accurate decision makers, overall, are people who know when to switch between the two modes of thinking.

A 2015 study by a team of researchers at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya found that people who describe themselves as “analytical thinkers” tended to be more accurate in analytical tasks like math problems, while self-described “intuitive thinkers” tend to do better on tasks like face recognition. Now here’s the real kicker: People who described themselves as adept at both modes of thought scored above average on both kinds of tasks.

The people who scored highest on both tasks described themselves as neither strongly intuitive nor strongly analytical. Instead, top scorers claimed they were both strongly intuitive and strongly analytical, depending on which type of thinking the situation called for. The top performers, in other words, were skilled at both types of thinking, and were flexible between them.

Next time you’re stumped on a decision, give logical analysis a serious try first — since it’s the slower of the two types of thinking — then, if that doesn’t work, make an equally earnest effort at intuitive thinking. The interplay of the two may lead you to the right choice.

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Related Continuing Education Links

This is a test only course (book not included). The book (or e-book) can be purchased from Amazon.This CE test is based on the book “The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain” (2010, 460 pages), which provides an account of the scientific basis of psychotherapy, based on the newest revelations of neuroscience. Beginning with a neurological analysis of Freud’s theories, the author describes the functioning of the neurons and neural networks that comprise the biological basis of thinking and relationships. Chapters discuss research on anxiety, fear, trauma, neural plasticity, memory, executive functioning, identity, narrative, consciousness, and attachment relationships, interweaving the neuroscientific and clinical literature and providing clinical examples as illustrations of theory and technique. The final three chapters discuss the ability of psychotherapy to rewire the brain, including a review of the existing neuroimaging studies of psychotherapy. The book imparts a scientific understanding of just how and why psychotherapeutic processes have a positive impact on the nervous system.

This course is designed for the practitioner who would like to use journal-writing exercises with clients as an adjunct to traditional psychotherapy, and would like some topic ideas to suggest, rather than limiting writing only to the technique of “freewriting.” It is suggested, although not mandatory, that the practitioner has already completed the course #20-13, “Writing It Out: Journaling as an Adjunct to Therapy.” That course lays the basic foundation for understanding the benefits of journaling and how it can best be used with clients. It also teaches a number of basic writing techniques. Journaling II presents a brief overview of “freewriting,” as well as 36 directed exercises divided into three phases. It also offers interpretive questions coordinating with each exercise and an explanation of the use of a behavior log as a journaling exercise.

Self-defeating behaviors are negative on-going patterns of behaviors involving issues such as smoking, weight, inactive lifestyle, depression, anger, perfectionism, etc. This course is designed to teach concepts to eliminate these negative patterns. The course is educational: first you learn the model, then you apply it to a specific self-defeating behavior. A positive behavioral change is the outcome. Following the course, participants will be able to identify, analyze and replace their self-defeating behavior(s) with positive behavior(s). The course also provides an excellent psychological “tool” for clinicians to use with their clients. The author grants limited permission to photocopy forms and exercises included in this course for clinical use.

Professional Development Resources, Inc. is a Florida nonprofit educational corporation 501(c)(3) that offers 150+ online, video and book-based continuing education courses for healthcare professionals. We are approved by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA); the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (b); the Alabama State Board of Occupational Therapy; the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy, Psychology & School Psychology, Dietetics & Nutrition, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and Occupational Therapy Practice; the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board and Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology; the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs; and by the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists and State Board of Social Worker Examiners.