More Brain “Flaws” in Making Decisions

This is a really good book if you’ve got the same interest as I in how the brain works to make decisions: How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

Here’s what I’m learning about the duel between the rational brain and the emotional brain, and how it might apply to sales, business communications and influencing people…

There’s a flaw in our thinking habits called the framing effect, which is a part of decision biases called loss aversion. It explains why people are much more likely to buy meat when it’s labeled 85 percent lean instead of 15 percent fat. Also, why twice as many patients opt for surgery when told there’s an 80 percent chance of survival as opposed to a 20 percent chance of dying.

Neuroscientists hooked people up to an fMRI imaging machine to look at which parts of their brains lit up while making gambling decisions. Here was the gambling game they asked them to play:

Imagine that you are playing a simple game whereby you’re given $50 and asked to decide between two options:

  1. All-or-nothing gamble, in which the odds are 40% you will keep the entire $50, and 60% that you will lose everything.
  2. A sure-thing: if you choose this option you get to keep $20

If you’re like most people, you take the 2nd option, the sure $20. Next, they asked people to play the game again. The risky gamble hasn’t changed, but here are the options that are offered:

  1. All-or-nothing gamble, 40% chance of keeping entire $50, 60% chance lose it all.
  2. Sure thing: but it’s framed as a loss of $30 instead of a gain of $20.

These two gambles are the same, they are just framed differently. In both cases, you walk away with $20 of the original $50. But the different descriptions strongly affect how people play the game.

When the choice is framed in terms of gaining $20, only 42% chose the risky gamble. When it was framed in terms of losing $30, 62% of people opted to roll the dice.

Here’s what’s interesting that they were able to see in the brain: those people whose gambling decisions were influenced by the prospect of losing $30 were misled by an excited amygdala, part of the emotional brain that evokes negative feelings. Whenever a person thinks about loss, the amygdala is activated.

But the others who were not swayed by the framing effect also had activated amygdalas, they also experienced negative feelings. They were able to look past their feelings and realize that the options were the same.

What made the difference? They had more elevated activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the rational brain. These people were able to feel their feelings, and choose to ignore them. They were able to make better gambling decisions because they regulated their negative emotions.

How do you regulate your emotional brain so that you can make more rational decisions? Awareness. By simply being aware that our emotional brain is sending negative feelings, we can decide to ignore it. The ability to become aware of our brain’s processes is called metacognition, and it’s a skill that can be developed.

We know when we are angry. Every emotion comes with the ability to think about it, to label it, to try to figure out why we’re feeling it. Sometimes a feeling may make no sense, as in the case of this gambling game. We can deliberately choose to ignore the emotional brain.

The question is when to ignore it and when to pay attention to it. We don’t always know or take the time for it. And because emotions can also help us make better decisions, the key is being able to discern.

What are your thoughts about this? What are your feelings? Leave a comment if you’d like.

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