Piet Mondrian, Composition with blue (1937)— Courtesy www.piet-mondrian.org

The myth of rational decision-making

How many times have you read an interview of a Fortune 500 company CEO stating: “I make decisions rationally, without involving any emotion”? I have, many, many times. When presenting an investment opportunity to their Board, opportunity A is compared to opportunity B in what seems like a very rational fashion: comprehensive data charts on past performance, fancy combined forward looking statements, and a promise to alleviate short term challenges. Magically, everyone seems to reach the same logical conclusion: opportunity A must be pursued.

Ask any entrepreneur how they make decisions and you will hear in 99% of the cases “I just follow my intuition”. Indeed, when your company has no history and you are pivoting every other month, everyone agrees brandishing financial projections makes little sense. At least investors are straight-forward when they say: “The most decisive factor is the team.” People, not data.

So are there really two types of people: the cold-minded rational leaders and the emotional entrepreneurs?

Why the myth of rational decision-making is harmful

  • It makes decisions harder. It creates the idea that there are human beings out there who, similar to a computer, just add the pluses and minuses and are magically good to go with the best option. Imagining that other people have this apparently superior ability makes us feel ridiculous and lonely in our struggling and wavering. It also dashes our self-confidence, which certainly doesn’t help with our initial task (“Why is it so difficult for me when everyone else seems to make decisions so easily? Why am I wavering? I’m so bad at making decisions, I hate it”)
  • It dilutes responsibility. When asked to justify a decision, it’s always easier to say: “It’s not me, it’s the data,” thereby closing the door to any type of dialogue. I’m sure you’ve experienced going through a hiring process with a head hunting firm, attending multiple interviews to be eventually told “They really liked your profile but they decided to hire someone internally,” which more often than not was their initial idea but at least now they have data to support it, or rather to hide behind.
  • It can be costly. Most board members are conversant with the fact that the data presented to them is biased towards the top management’s preference. So why not talk openly about it (“What is your gut feeling?”) and challenge it? Invest in a company whose team can’t get along with yours and those combined financial statements surely won’t look as good.
  • It creates a disconnect. If we can’t openly embrace the struggle and the intuitive dimension of decision-making because others despise it, then we might feel an urge to pretend we are “one of their’s,” and focus on carefully adding pluses and minuses while trying to repress or disconnect from our emotions (“This job is perfect on paper, what am I complaining about?”). Steering away from our inner-selves might lead to a painful wake-up call further down the road.

We feel, therefore we choose: neuroscience has shown emotions drive every decision we make

Traditionally in research, poor decision making on rational topics was attributed to a lack of logical skills. That was until a series of experiments were carried on patients with brain damage in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex: they were unable to make decisions that made sense but they had no loss of Intellectual Quotient in the traditional sense. For example, when performing Bechara’s Iowa Gambling Task (a task where gains must be maximized by selecting cards from 4 different decks, each offering different rewards but also different unpredictable losses), unlike the control group, patients with ventromedial lesions performed poorly and continued to choose cards from the bad decks. Moreover, 50% of those patients were perfectly able to identify which are the good and the bad decks of cards but failed in consistently choosing the right ones because their brain damage prevented them from using past emotional knowledge to create biases based on rewards and punishments (measured as anticipatory Skin Conductance Response) to guide their decisions.

Although those patients’ intellectual abilities are generally well preserved, they are unable to observe social conventions (they do not engage emotions in relation to complex situations and events) and to decide advantageously on matters pertaining to their own lives. Hence, the somatic marker hypothesis proposed that a defect in emotion and feeling plays an important role in impaired decision making.

When making a decision, our brain calls for emotions that are associated with similar past situations and uses them to create a bias towards one of the options we are facing: emotions (conscious or unconscious) are therefore involved in every decision we make.

If decision-making is based on our past experience, can we still exercise our free will?

Our brain is constantly making assumptions and testing them to form new updated assumptions, thereby accumulating emotional markers of success and failure. So, when faced with a decision we always have an a priori stemming from our past experience (directly or indirectly related). To what extent does it prompt or just influence our choice?

Rest assured, there seems to be room for free will all along the decision-making process:

a) Realizing a decision needs to be made

It might sound stupid but sometimes it can take a long time (and a great deal of suffering) before we realize a decision needs to be made. Some people are able to make decisions when everything is going well and their self-confidence is high (“I love my current job but this even better opportunity came up so I am seizing it! What’s the worst that can happen after all?”), others need the current situation to deteriorate significantly before they consider alternatives, and some bear with deteriorated conditions in the long run for fear of making a bad decision and often undermined by dashed self-confidence (“I’m already struggling so much with this job, how could I ever be able to take up a new challenge? At least I know what I’m in for.”)

Deciding to decide or not is the first way to exercise our free will.

b) Considering our options

Here again, we can choose to brainstorm options and bounce the craziest ideas on our friends or just limit ourselves to more obvious options set forth (“I was offered a CFO position but what I truly want is to launch my own company”). Widening our horizons when self-confidence is low can be challenging but it is always a good opportunity to unleash our free will. Focusing on our past successes and surrounding ourselves with people who believe in us can be key in that process.

c) Choosing the “best” option

True, our brain calls for past memories to make current decisions. Being conversant with what constitutes our past trauma and successes will help us see how they affect our decisions (For example, children victim of parental abuse might associate love to abuse and as adults, lean towards abusive partners. Indeed, according to their memories, abuse might constitute a prerequisite for them being loved). While it’s no easy task breaking away from built-in patterns, being aware of them is already a huge step in exercising our free will (“How is the current situation different than the one I experienced years ago and how might the outcome be different?”).

d) Implementing it

We each follow a different internal tempo when it comes to tackling steps a) to d) and for some, implementation might be the hardest part. “I know I must quit and I’ve made my decision but I just can’t find the courage to send my letter, it’s been sitting on my desk for weeks now.” Respecting our own rhythm, being conversant with our internal obstacles and working on removing them is another opportunity to exercise our free will.

Much more than reading data charts, the ability to read our inner world, made of rich and complex emotions, is a critical factor in influencing our decisions and ensuring they are consistent with the goals we set for ourselves. Becoming active in this process can start as early as age 4 with pedagogies like Wisdom, where children learn the alphabet of emotions to decipher their own inner world and confidently navigate decision-making throughout their lives.

Sources: Damasio, Grabowski, Frank, Galaburda, & Damasio, 1994; Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, Antonio R. Damasio, 2000