Being Aware Of Your Brain's Limits Is The First Step To Tackling Thorny Business Decisions

Being aware of our brains’ prejudices and pitfalls can help us sharpen our decision-making abilities. So let's get started.

We constantly have to make choices; you’ve probably already made hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions already today. Granted, most of them were incredibly small decisions (for example, deciding to read this article)—but they’re still decisions. Every time you make a move or even just check the time with a quick glance, you’re making a choice to do that.

Think about it. Then think about how hard your brain has to work at that kind of decision-making on a daily basis.

March 11th through March 17th is Brain Awareness Week, an event founded and coordinated by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, making it an excellent time to consider how what Woody Allen called his second favorite organ actually works—and sometimes doesn’t work—on our behalf.

For example, did you know there is such a thing as decision fatigue? One study examined a parole board’s verdicts on a parade of prisoners throughout the day and discovered that the early bird got the “Get Out of Jail” card more often than not; 70% of inmates who appeared before the board early in the morning found themselves granted paroles, while those who appeared later in the day had a less than 10% chance of being successful in their appeals, even though, in many cases, the crimes and the prisoners’ records were almost identical.

As a New York Times story put it, “Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car.” In other words, it’s why we too often choose to do something we shouldn’t.

As much as we’d like to believe our brains work on pure logic, the truth is they don’t. Not only that, but each of the neurons that power our brains only operates at about one ten-millionth the speed of an average desktop computer, which is evidently why we had to invent those computers to help us out.

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics and author of Predictably Irrational, has studied our decision-making tendencies extensively and has come up with five primary principles that guide them:

1. Our decision-making is imperfect, but it can sometimes be predicted.

2. When we have to make a decision, we will often choose not to, by choosing either to do nothing or to do what’s always been done before (the “default” position).

3. Complex decisions throw us: we’d rather deal with choices that are similar in nature than wildly different.

4. The most powerful factors that influence our decision-making are the “default” choices and how complex the choice is.

5. Not only can a decision often be predictable, but, with the right skill and insight, it can be influenced towards a specific outcome.

Now, all of the above might be good news to political consultants, but it can make us a little uneasy about the decisions we make in our daily business lives—just how badly are we screwing up? That’s why being aware of our brains’ prejudices and pitfalls can help us sharpen our decision-making abilities (and ensure we don’t let a killer out on the streets just because he showed up at 8:30 a.m. for his hearing).

When you’re about to make an important decision, keep in mind that your mind has some real organic limitations. Here are the main ones, courtesy of the Dana Foundation, and how you can work to overcome them:

* While it’s true that we can’t avoid emotions getting in the way of our decision-making, we can attempt to look at all perspectives to get as close to objectivity as possible when we’re reviewing our choices.

* Our brains’ “processors” and “hard drives” have limits, and they should be recognized. When we try to do too many things at once, that’s when decision fatigue kicks into high gear; we might overlook important determining factors or make a decision just to make a decision. That’s because our brains actually get over-congested, which creates “bottlenecks.” Try to stay focused on one important matter at a time.

* Brain diseases such as depression, schizophrenia, late-stage Alzheimer’s, and such rare conditions as Pick’s disease can severely impact decision-making. Again, your brain is a body part, and if it’s in need of treatment, it should be obtained as soon as possible.

* As noted, the brain can get just plain old tired, just like the rest of our bodies. But keeping the rest of our bodies in shape can help our brains work better for longer periods of time; that’s why exercise can be important to keeping our decision-making as sharp as possible. It’s also crucial to keep your mind active as you get older in order to preserve its higher functioning features.

* Finally, a decline in brain power is inevitable as we age. However, this is where life experience can level the playing field; by accessing previous dilemmas we’ve faced and applying the lessons learned from those previous problems, we can easily more than compensate for any loss in “thought-power.”

Want to know more about what our brains need to tackle our thorniest business issues? Check out this excellent list of the top 10 business skills needed to succeed today. It’ll give you a lot to think about—and thinking is just what you should be doing during Brain Awareness Week.

[Image: Flickr user Andreina Schoeberlein]

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