The Emerging Science of Sound Decision Making

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How many times have you questioned yourself about a choice you made? After making what turns out to be a bad decision, do you scratch your head and wonder, “What ever was I thinking?”

When you look back on past decisions, sometimes you realize you weren’t thinking all that clearly at all — at least, not at the time. Perhaps you acted in too much haste. Maybe you had too much else on your mind to pay good enough attention to the issue at hand. Maybe you were too worried, confused, or even depressed to make a sound choice. Because we generally have to live with the consequences of our choices, most of us want those choices to be good ones. So it’s natural to wonder about the kind of things that will lead us to better decisions.

Researchers have been examining the many factors thought to possibly influence the choices we make. What they’re finding appears to validate several of the longstanding suspicions we’ve had about the factors that can compromise our better judgment. It seems perfectly rational to assume that anxiety could easily interfere with our ability to make a good choice. And now there’s some empirical evidence from animal studies at the University of Pittsburgh and recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience to back up that conjecture. The study, conducted with laboratory rats, even suggested the possible neurological basis for how anxiety obstructs making the better choice. It appears that anxiety might inhibit vital communication with the prefrontal cortex (PFC) area of the brain, which is widely regarded as critical for all types of executive functioning including making decisions. Interestingly enough, this communication is interrupted because of a “numbing” of sorts of the normal neuronal activity in the PFC. Anxiety is believed to be the trigger for this numbing. But perhaps the most interesting finding was that while anxiety always produced these effects, the effect on decision making was greatest when the lab rats had to ignore distracting information to make the better choice. So, if we’re to extrapolate to human decision making, perhaps what this study is telling us is that when we’re anxious, and especially when we’re too worried, preoccupied, or distracted by things other than the immediate task at hand — including the things that may be giving rise to our anxiety — the part of our brain we need most to help us make a good judgment is simply rendered too inactive to help us out.

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Other studies have looked at some basic ways people go about making decisions. It seems that basic decision making styles bear heavily on the soundness of our choices. Some researchers (e.g., in a draft paper from the Harvard Business school) find it useful to categorize two main types of decision makers. The first are those who tend to decide primarily on the basis of intuition or instinct and emotion, and who therefore make relatively quick, almost effortless choices prompted by their feelings at the time. Second are those who tend to be more pensive, labored in their reasoning and base their choices on what appear to them as the most logical conclusions that can be drawn from their deliberations. While there’s considerable evidence that taking the second, more deliberative approach is a less-biased, more effective way to make decisions, there are still folks who place far more trust in their intuition and their feelings.

Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research (see the press release) explores how many people have trouble making decisions when options are presented sequentially, rather than all at once. Professor Sheena Iyengar and her colleagues suggest that we may balk at making choices because of our fear of the unknown and our hope that better options may become available later, leading us to believe it safer to postpone committing to any course of action than to make a decision and then potentially have to deal with unpleasant or unanticipated consequences of that decision. Our fears, it seems, can not only interfere with our ability to make the better call, they can also paralyze us. And inaction on our part often has its own unfortunate and unforeseen consequences.

Over my years of clinical practice, I’ve counseled many individuals whose distress was largely related to critical choices they’d made. More than just the choices themselves, problems were related to how folks approached their choices and what they drew or learned from them. Choices made in haste, in fear, or in insecurity almost always led to unpleasant consequences. And choices avoided until circumstances forced the issue also created problems. But none of us is perfect and we all make less than stellar choices from time to time. What experience has taught me matters most is what lessons we learn from the choices we make and how we respond to those lessons. Disturbed characters in particular are notorious for not altering their decision making patterns, even in the face of adverse consequences born of their choices. While we are indeed learning about some of the factors that might compromise sound decision making, we still have a lot to learn about how and why certain personality and character types make the kinds of choices they make and how those choices affect or perhaps even reinforce their preferred style of coping. For more on my work specifically on disturbed characters, see:

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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