Use Your Imagination and You’ll Make Better Decisions

Hint: Picture your day as a real-life game of dominos.

Here’s a familiar scenario: You’re faced with a decision — like eating a salad or inhaling something triple-fried — and even though you know what the smarter choice is, you can’t seem to convince yourself to choose the healthier option.

Luckily science has a fix for this perpetual problem. A new study found that if you imagine your life as a “series of chain reactions,” Cari Romm writes for Science of Us, you might be able to better grasp the consequences of your decisions and make wiser choices as a result.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Take Romm’s personal example: A chronic snooze-button fan, she explains how her efforts to get out of bed when the alarm goes off the first time don’t usually pan out. But, she writes, if she were to imagine the chain of events that would happen as a result of staying in bed — missing breakfast, feeling rushed, being hungry later — she might have an easier time getting up when the alarm goes off.

In the new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, participants were given a choice between receiving a set sum of money within the next day or a larger amount of money a month later. Some subjects had this decision framed as “two separate and unrelated outcomes,” she writes, while for others the choice was presented as a chain reaction: Take the money now and have less money in a month or have no money now and have a larger sum later.

Researchers found that those who had the decision framed as a series of events were more likely to wait for the bigger payout, which is, of course, the wiser way to go. In subsequent experiments, researchers presented the same decisions to volunteers and scanned their brains while they were considering their options. They found that people presented with a “simple this-or-that choice,” Romm writes, had more brain activity in areas linked to willpower, while those asked to visualize the chain reaction of their choice had more activity in areas linked to imagination.

Study co-author Adrianna Jenkins, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that this may be because “willpower might enable people to override impatient impulses after they’re formed, whereas imagining future consequences might affect the formation of the impulses themselves.”

So the next time you’re faced with a decision — like waiting to send that important email because you just can’t bring yourself to draft it at the moment or diving in and sending it — tap into your creative side and visualize the positive series of events that would happen if you tackled the task now.

Read more on Science of Us. And if you want to know how to make smarter decisions on how you spend your time, check out this piece.