When I complain of the angst of decision-making to my friends, eventually, at some point in the conversation, they comfort me with the notion that no matter what I decide, it will have been the right decision. Now, if that were strictly true, then the decision would not be that difficult, and I would find real comfort in being reminded of that fact. But the truth is that choosing one alternative over another will lead to a different set of outcomes and, depending on what I value at the time, some outcomes will most definitely be better than others. So the real task is to predict what outcomes I will value in the future, and to make decisions that will lead to those outcomes and hopefully some form of personal fulfillment or contentment.
Although my well-meaning friends might not be right in that direct interpretation of the adage, they are all sage neuroscientists, in spirit, if not by way of education and career. Because the truth is that no matter what I decide, it’s very likely that my brain will work hard to convince me that it was the right decision.
Making the wrong decision leads to a very uncomfortable state that psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’: it’s the terrible feeling you get when your view of the world is at odds with how the world actually works. For example, if you believe that LA traffic is predictable and easily navigated so long as you avoid the rush hour(s) and never hit the beach, you might find that the third time you find yourself in standstill traffic in the middle of the day on random Wednesdays, you’ll feel the need to revise your belief system as it pertains to traffic in the city of Angels. Voila! You’ve just experienced the soothing effect of how our minds deal with cognitive dissonance: we simply change our attitudes, beliefs and their resulting actions.
American social psychologist Leon Festinger is credited with developing the first comprehensive theory of cognitive dissonance but the observation that we change our beliefs in order to justify our decisions can be traced all the way back to Aesop, and his fable The Fox and the Grapes: Fox wants grapes but can’t reach them, so he decides the grapes must be sour. It is easy to despise what you cannot get.
Fifty years after Festinger published his seminal book, social psychologists are still working out just how much our minds justify our choices. In a recent study published in Psychological Science, Tali Sharot, Cristina Velazquez and Ray Dolan demonstrated that the very act of making a choice affects our preferences. They asked study participants to rate 80 vacation destinations by imagining themselves taking a holiday there and predicting how happy they might be. Then, they told the participants that they were participating in a test of subliminal decision-making and asked them to pick one of two alternative destinations that they would only perceive ‘subliminally’. In fact, the alternatives weren’t presented at all during the decision-making but only appeared on the screen after a blind choice had been made. Even though the participants hadn’t actually chosen the destination, they still showed a preference for it when asked to rate it at a later time. When a computer made the choice for them, however, they didn’t show that same preference. The act of choosing affects makes us like our choice.
No matter which decision I make, you can bet that my anterior cingulate cortex will be working in overdrive, monitoring all the conflicting feelings and thoughts that will eventually be melded into a new worldview. In the meantime, I will follow the advice of a dear friend, whose excellent decision-making has created a flourishing international career, a loving and rich family life and lots of laughs: 1) first, gather all the information you can get about the possible outcomes, 2) hold off making the decision until the last possible moment, 3) once you’ve made the decision, tell everyone about it so that you can’t back out of it and finally 4) stop thinking about what would have happened if you had picked the other alternative. Oh, and he also said: ‘whatever you decide, I’m sure it will be the right decision’. How true.