We make dozens of decisions every day; some simple, others more complex. Some internet sources have estimated that an adult makes about 35,000 conscious decisions each day. The study of decision making has been the subject of a number of discussions and research areas; from mathematics to psychology, economics and political science, to name a few.
Decisions which require self-control are extremely important as they affect a person’s health, social and financial welfare. So why is it that people find it so difficult to make healthy decisions? A fundamental weakness in people, is the approach taken to health behaviour - which is to believe that we behave rationally. To act rationally is to be presented with information which we process and implement. The implementation of information isn’t always what happens. Not because of a knowledge deficit, but because of a behavioural deficit. The mind is a ‘high resistance pathway’. It doesn’t like to change.
Your brain is made up of approximately 100 billion neurons (brain cells). These neurons store and transmit more information than you can ever imagine. Every time you learn a new word, a new piece of information or an activity, these neurons change their connections with other neurons.
The brain likes to maintain homeostasis - that is, to maintain the same conditions. For this reason, it creates pathways for habits that it can follow with ease and where minimal energy is used. In following habits, the prefrontal cortex of the brain doesn’t need to be engaged - that’s the area used for higher level skills like paying sustained attention to difficult tasks or decision making. Note that, when this area of the brain is not engaged, difficult decision making doesn’t take place.
So, to change someone’s mind is difficult. To change their behaviour with that information is even more difficult. Studies suggest it is because of early development of poor decision making that makes it difficult to make healthy decisions later on in life.
We need to look out for behavioural reflexes. We assume that people don’t behave as they should or make the right choices because they don’t know any better. That’s not actually true. Consider economics; there is always a focus on calculating costs and benefits of actions so to maximise performance. Similarly, there are behavioural economics.This is a branch of economic research that adds elements of psychology to traditional models in an attempt to better understand decision-making by investors, consumers and other economic participants.
Research can confirm that we are irrational beings - subject to feelings and framings of social context. As such, we don’t always do what is in our long term best interests. In other words, we often tend to make wrong decisions. It’s not key to realise we are irrational, but it is key to realise we are irrational in ‘highly predictable ways’. Therefore we can look to design strategies to overcome irrationalities. They say to be forewarned is to be forearmed.
Irrationality of humans can be seen to play out in ‘present bias’ - where we see current short-term outcomes to be superior to longer-term outcomes. For example, one might say they are on a diet as of today but then take a look at a slice of chocolate cake and decide the diet can wait till tomorrow. It is this ‘present bias’ which makes it difficult for us to make the right decision. To see the results of hard work takes patience, as it will be seen in the future - not right now.
Ultimately, it all comes back to making rational decisions. We are influenced by internal and external factors. To make better decisions, it’s important to be able to see the bigger picture and the future consequences of our present actions.
That’s not to knock one’s irrationality. It’s from the non-rational parts of our minds we get creativity, courage and all things which encourage passion. So, to take this blog on a slight bend, harness the irrationality - it may be the most rational move of all.