We all have different ways we make the truly tough decisions

Jeff Bezos asks himself one question when he needs to make an important decision. Derek Sivers says, "It's either 'Hell yeah!' or 'no.'" When you have a choice between doing this or that, absent a clear winner my dad always go with the hard choice -- because the hard choice is usually the right choice. 

And here's another approach: When you can't decide between two options, flip a coin.

As Friederike Fabritius and Hans Hagemann write in The Leading Brain: Neuroscience Hacks to Work Smarter, Better, and Happier, "flipping a coin can actually be a great way of making a decision. But probably not in the way you think."

If you're torn between two choices of seemingly equal merit, flip a coin. If you're satisfied or relieved by the decision the coin made for you, then go with it. On the other hand, if the realist of the coin toss leaves you uneasy and even makes you wonder why you used a coin toss to decide such an important decision in the first place, then go with the other choice instead. Your "gut feeling" alerted you to the right decision.

Before you dismiss gut feel, though, there is science that underlies intuition. As Fabritius and Hagemann describe, your basal ganglia and your insula, two distinct regions of your brain, drive intuitive decisions. 

Your basal ganglia manage the stored routines and patterns that make up your experiences. Your insula takes care of body awareness, and is highly sensitive to any changes in your body. 

So when you need to make a decision, your unconscious brain often starts working on the problem right away, even if you're not consciously thinking about it. Then, when you finally try to make a conscious decision, your brain compares that decision with the one your unconscious has already made.

What happens next?

  • If your unconscious and conscious agree, your brain gives off a subtle reward response. In short, the decision doesn't just seem logical -- it also feels good.
  • If your unconscious disagrees with your conscious decision, your insula detects other changes in your body. It registers a threat -- which means your decision doesn't feel so good.

If your brain has predicted a reward -- if your basal ganglia decided one thing, and you decide another -- it registers a threat. Your anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) generates an electronic signal called error-related negativity. (Or, in nonscientific terms, the "Oh, sh-t!" response.)

And that's where intuitive decisions come into play. When you're making the right or wrong decision, your body knows it. You can't explain why -- you just "know" it. That's intuition.

Of course great intuition comes from experience. (Otherwise it's just guessing.) That's why Navy SEALs can respond so quickly: They've practiced and trained and debriefed and run through so many scenarios, and their storehouse of experiences is so full, that they can respond almost instantly to changing conditions.

That's why Sully decided to land in the Hudson River. That's why quarterbacks like Tom Brady can read a defense and make the right throw so quickly. 

As Fabritius and Hagemann write, "Although there's a common misconception that intuitive decisions are random and signify a lack of of skill, the exact opposite is true. Intuitive decisions are often the product of years of experience and thousands of hours of practice. They represent the most efficient use of your accumulated experience."

Take advantage of your accumulated experience. The next time you need to decide between two choices that seem basically equal, flip a coin.

If the coin lands on choice A and you immediately think, "Oh good. That's what I was thinking," then go with A.   

But if the coin lands on choice A and you immediately think, "You know, maybe it would be better if this was the best 2 out of 3 ..." then choice B is likely to be the right choice.

And if it's not, that's OK. You will still have added more data to your bank of experience -- which means that next time your intuition is even more likely to know the right answer. 

Published on: Mar 7, 2018
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