Decision making: how your brain weighs the evidence and why you shouldn’t regret any decisionsOn August 3, 2017 by neurotravels
How do you react when you have to decide for which way to go in your life? I mean big, important decisions that you think you can’t handle?
My Masters project had a big chunk of decision-making behaviour experiments in it. I confronted mice with several options they could choose from, which put them quite into some conflict, what in turn was useful to measure their amount of anxiety.
Human subjects are confronted with quite some funky decision making tasks as well, when they go and play with brain scientists. For quite some decades, we were thinking of ourselves to be the most developed species and the only one that is able to think, but today we finally know better! If it comes to understanding probabilities or to react to a stimulus very quickly, there are some species, like non-human primates or rats, that are just beating our ass without any issue. If you play “matching pennies” against a chimpanzee, he or she will make you look very old! They do a by far better job than us when it comes to recognising patterns or reacting quickly and accurately; their working memory (the memory you temporarily hold in your head for remembering stuff you just did some seconds ago; a newer, more elaborate term for short-term memory), is awesome.
Our brain weighs the evidence like animals’ brains do it as well: by integrating risk and outcome probabilities, influenced by what we have learned from the past. Animals are mostly driven by their instincts, like innate fear or exploration drive. Us humans, we are distracted so much by our surrounding and biased by prejudgements and our peers. Many pretty funny and other, very frightening, experiments did show, how foolish we can get when it comes to peer pressure and mimicking behaviour. Just because others do or say stuff, we do or say it as well.
How do you decide?
I got asked quite a few times in my life, how I made big decisions. How I came up with the idea of moving from here to there, how I had the guts to decide to leave everything behind once more and try out something new without going nuts about it. And it was hard for me to come up with an answer straight away.
At this day today, I stand before another, really important and influencing decision regarding my future. The first time, I seem to stress out quite a lot about it, so I went back in thinking about how I made my previous decisions and started typing this. I hope, this can help some of you to make decisions a little bit easier 🙂
7 important points to consider, when making big decisions
1. Do not overthink
Firstly, I think that I try not to overthink stuff. Not with the big decisions. Weirdly, it is very, very hard for me to decide what ice cream flavour I should pick or which pizza I should order. Life- changing decisions, obviously. But somehow I managed to never stress out too much about where to move, what studies to go for, what project to choose, and what PhD position to turn down because I was not ready for it yet.
2. Listen to your feeling
I feel like my guts and heart just gave me a really clear feeling that made me 100% confident with what I was going to do. Of course, sometimes it took a while until this feeling was that clear. But when it was, I always listened to it and I just got excited and went with it. Easier said than done, I guess. But – maybe you can find a way to create this one situation where you manage to get rid of all this biasing and distracting, crazy thoughts that are surrounding you; maybe through Yoga or Meditation? Any other sport? Music? Going to your safe place and just staring at a wall, or nature? Just for one moment – and then really deeply listen to your feelings. They will tell you! And listening to them is always, always, a good decision.
3. Give less weight to consequences
Do not overthink consequences. Sure, consequences are an important point to consider, but(!), you don’t know what’s going to happen anyways and most of the time you cannot influence any of the outcome. Plus, plans pretty much never work out the way you want them to. So why stress out before hand?
4. Don’t regret!
What helps me with the previous points is, that I try to never regret decisions. If you would ask me for my motto, first I would say – pff, no idea, I don’t have a motto. If you would force me to name one, I would probably go with this one: If you were happy in the moment you decided for or against something, why would you regret it? Delete regret from your vocabulary. Regret doesn’t change anything. You can’t turn back time. Your life takes place right now, not in the past. If your decision turned out to be totally idiotic and negative and stupid, learn from it. Don’t make the same mistake again. But don’t be too hard on yourself! You are a human and humans make mistakes. As we saw before, sometimes more than rats and chimpanzees. Also, most of your decisions, even if they seem to not lead to what you wanted them to lead to, won’t lock doors forever or ruin your life. Which leads to my next advice:
5. Put into perspective. Let it out.
Put everything into perspective, so you don’t freak out. Maybe talk about it. Write about it. Make a pro and cons list. Whatever helps you in clearing your mind, when your brain doesn’t stop screaming thousands of different crazy thoughts at you, constantly. Focus. Write it down on paper. Writing this blog post feels therapeutic 😉 If you can, talk to people! Don’t hesitate to share. I did that for a long time. That’s so wrong. It helps so much to share your problems. And if you still don’t want to, or are afraid of sharing your thoughts, talk to your pets or to a tree or something. Seriously. Or really, just write it down. Once, I wrote a letter to myself and sealed it and hid it. Just to let it out.
6. Compare to your ideal
My awesome house mate just gave me an awesome advice as well (that is why you should talk to people!): if you have to decide between two options, for example two job opportunities, you could compare them to your ideal. Write down your ideal (job, in this case), in very tiny detail. Then, compare both jobs with this ideal, instead of each other. All about putting it into the right perspective and stopping your brain from going crazy.
7. Decide for what makes you happy!
Finally, decide for what excites you, inspires you and makes you happy! It is about creating a situation where you can totally stand behind your decision, ones you made it. Try to tell yourself that you won’t regret any decisions you once made, so you won’t stress too much about consequences beforehand. Talking about regret once more, If you ask people what they regret most in their lives, it is mostly what they did not do, not what they did do. It is better to make a mistake than to not do anything. So, don’t miss out on a great opportunity, be brave and just go for it! Also think about this: if you don’t over-plan things, they cannot go too wrong 😉
An amazing book about decision making that I can highly recommend: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. Check it out and let me know, what you think!
Want to find out why you should decide to change university for your degree and how moving can boost your career? Check out this post.