In the grocery store, for example, whether to buy things that are cheap/bad for me or expensive/good for me is always an issue, but when I'm tired, this can become an almost impassable choice. I stand there staring at the options until I wind up deciding on the basis of something stupid or irrelevant -- it's the loaf of bread I happen to have in my hand when I give up trying to make a decision. I like poppy seeds and this muffin looks like it has more poppy seeds in it. I first ate that cereal at a friend's house when I was a kid and that was a good day then, so I'll buy it now. Or I walk away from the whole thing altogether.
I've noticed this sort of thing happening often enough that I, in true Apple Lady fashion, have gotten curious about it. I wondered, is there a set of steps your brain goes through on the way toward making a decision? And does being tired somehow keep your brain from getting to one or more of those steps? Is there something in particular that's getting derailed, and is there some way I can get my brain back on the rails even when I am tired?
I've been doing quite a bit of reading on this for a while now, and I found all of it really fascinating. Of course, since it's the brain that's involved and the brain is a complicated piece of machinery, the answers are not simple 1, 2, 3. But I'll try to break down what I've learned into simple enough bits that you'll be able to take them in.
The Brain Is Complicated
- The first thing to know is, your brain is not like a department store: one room for shoes, one room for memories, one room for anger, a room for decision-making, a room for shoes, and so on. But it is very tempting to imagine it this way.
In the 19th century, phrenology heads like this one were very popular among scientists. They drew sections on heads and labeled them with all sorts of attributes or emotions because they believed that those emotions were handled or produced by that particular part of the brain.
(Photo from Hill Gallery folk art)
- There's still a kind of phrenology at work today. Neurologists will hook subjects' brains up to various imaging machinery and they have the subjects perform certain tasks. They watch a small portion of the brain to see whether it "lights up," or is especially active during this task. This research gets published in the popular media as, "Left side of brain controls speech!" or "Right side of brain determines whether you're religious!"
- In truth, the brain is an extraordinarily complex web of chemical and neurological interactions. In nearly every brain activity, there are several regions or systems involved to some degree or other. Pinning a particular mental function down to one place or one chemical exchange isn't realistic.
It's the Prefrontal Cortex, Stupid -- But Wait, There's More
- So it is misleading to say what nearly everybody says about decision-making, which is that it's handled by the prefrontal cortex. That's generally true, but it's also more complicated than that.
The prefrontal cortex is the hunk at the front of the brain that starts above your forehead and goes back to about the middle of your head. This is where a lot of the activity surrounding decision-making takes place, but it's not the only part of your brain involved.
(Diagram from Brian Explorer)
- The prefrontal cortex is not the only place involved in decision-making, but to make things easier for a second, let's say that it is. I'll come back to the other areas later.
Seven Is My Limit!
- While most of your brain handles an incredible amount of information and performs a tons of tasks at lightning speeds, the prefrontal cortex is a bit weak by comparison. Researchers have found that the prefrontal cortex can handle only about seven pieces of input toward a decision at one time. Any more than that and it gets overloaded and it spins and spins, or it shuts down, or it otherwise can't reach a decision.
- Let me put this in real-life terms.
- Let's say Wanda is in a store, holding a shirt sleeve with the price tag dangling off it, trying to decide whether or not to buy the shirt.
- She's taking in the visual cues of the shirt and the price tag, and probably other sensory input as well. She's feeling the texture of the fabric, the store is playing music, someone just walked by wearing perfume, and there's a guy in the back of the store shouting into his cell phone, so she's hearing and feeling and smelling all of these things.
- She's also considering how this shirt looked when she tried it on, she's trying to remember how much money is in her bank account, and how well did shirts like it hold up after she washed them several times, she's wondering does she even like the color of this shirt, does her husband like this color, does she have other things at home that she can wear it with, and so on.
The blue shirt. A black hole of indecision for Wanda.
(It's by Oasis, and it sells for £14.40 on burningahole.com.uk)
- Not counting the guy shouting into his cell phone, the perfume, and the music, Wanda is trying to negotiate six factors in that shirt-buying decision. That's not an especially high number, but for the prefrontal cortex, it's a lot. If I were to add one more factor to that decision, Wanda's prefrontal cortex would get overloaded, and that's when she would probably walk away from the whole thing.
- Or she might make a decision whether to buy or not on the basis of whatever thought or emotional response out of all of those that stands up and demands the most attention.
- Maybe the color of the shirt reminds her of the color her room used to be when she was a little girl, and that's a happy memory for her, so she buys the shirt.
- Maybe the music that the store is playing is something she likes and is in some way soothing to her. She decides she doesn't need to worry about money all that much, so what the heck, she'll buy the shirt.
- Maybe the guy shouting into his cell phone gets even louder and trips her annoyance limit, so she lets go of the shirt sleeve and walks out of the store without buying the shirt.
Logic + Emotions or Instincts = Decision
- Even though our powers of logic and reason and analysis may be engaged, our emotions and memories get called into the act, too. Those emotions and memories and what some researchers call "instinctual" responses come from other parts of the brain than the prefrontal cortex.
The colored sections are collectively called the limbic system. Each of these elements has something to do with our emotions or instinctual responses. The hypothalamus deals with basics like breathing, hunger, thirst, heart rate, body temperature, as well as sexual response, anger, and aggression. The pituitary gland is where hormones are produced that regulate the stuff that the hypothalamus wants controlled. The amygdala is also involved in sexual response, anger, aggression. The hippocampus is where short-term memories get converted to long-term memories.
(Diagram from Dr. C. George Boeree)
- Those "emotional centers" in the limbic system are all connected to the prefrontal cortex. (I'll talk about those connections later.) But these areas of the brain also get involved, along with the prefrontal cortex, in decision-making.
- We have a sort of prejudice against emotions when it comes to decision-making. We like to think that the best decision-making is done completely logically and rationally. But our brains don't -- and in fact, can't -- work that way.
- People who lack emotions because of brain injuries have been studied for some time, and the research continues to find that they often have a very difficult time making decisions. Even decisions as simple as whether to use a black pen or a red pen, they just can't process it.
- This is because, when faced with a decision, in addition to calling upon facts, the brain also calls upon memories and emotions of similar experiences from the past, and it brings all that into account. People who can't access their emotions can't bring those to bear on decisions, and they simply can't make a choice.
- In truth, our emotions are very much involved in nearly every decision we make.
We tend to assume that we don't want emotions involved in decision-making. But in real life, we need and want them involved. Mr. Spock might be an entertaining concept on television, but in real life, he would probably be annoying, if not dangerous.
(Photo from ugeene's Nerd Zone)
Emotions: Hey, They're Not So Bad
- Let me talk about terminology for a second. Some researchers have studied emotions versus logic, others have studied what they call "instinctual" responses or gut reactions versus analytical thinking, or they have compared the influence of long-term memory versus short-term memorization, those sorts of pairs. Even though each of those pairs involves slightly different activities, I'm going to simplify them for the sake of this discussion and call all the emotional/memory/gut reaction stuff the instinctual response. All the analytical cognitive reasoning stuff I'm going to call logic.
- To demonstrate how often our instinctual response gets involved in decision-making, here is a math problem one researcher uses to reveal how readily this happen:
- A bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
- Most people answer right away: 10 cents.
- That seems like it should be the correct answer, but it is not. If the ball costs 10 cents, the bat would cost $1 more than that, or $1.10, which would bring the total to $1.20.
- The correct answer is found with a bit of algebra.
- ball + ball + $1 = $1.10
- 2x ball = $0.10
- ball = $0.05
- Most of us don't stop to work out the problem step by step. We rely on the number of times we've had to make change at the store, or other scenarios where we've wound up with simple answers like $1, and that's how we arrive at our answer -- and we get there very quickly, too.
- Those of us who deal with more complicated math problems on a more frequent basis probably saw the trick in that problem much sooner, knew there was more to it than met the eye, and arrived at the correct answer -- and got there quickly, as well.
- In fact, chances are that those who are more "mathy" than the rest of us didn't actually take the time to do the algebra problem step by step, but rather had done enough problems like it to know how this one would turn out, too. Even for those who have what we would generally call a more logical mind, simply because their brains do math problems more often, they still probably would have engaged that instinctual response to arrive at an answer.
- We tend to demonize emotions and say that when the emotions get involved, we make poor decisions. But this is a great example of why we're erroneous in saying that. The "mathy" people would have relied on their instinctual response to arrive at the answer to the bat & ball problem, while the less mathy among us did the same thing. The difference is not that the mathy people didn't engage their instinctual center but rather that the mathy people have a lot more experience with this type of problem, and that's why they got the right answer.
- In fact, sometimes we make better decisions because our emotions are involved. One of the occasions when you want your instinctual response/memory center to be the most involved is, seemingly paradoxically, when you've done a task hundreds or thousands of times.
- People who have played thousands of games of chess, for example, remember the consequences of the moves they made in past games and they've linked those memories to success (positive emotion) or failure (negative emotion). The chess experts who are making moves at lightning speed are rapidly rejecting other possible and less favorable moves based on the hundreds of occasions those moves have turned out badly. Because of their memories and emotional experiences, they can rule out a multitude of options and thus make decisions very quickly. They don't have to "think;" they can act on their "gut instinct."
- So let's go back to Wanda in the store holding the shirt sleeve. Her prefrontal cortex is trying to manage all sorts of logical aspects to the question. But in the end, her instinctual response center steps in and makes the decision for her. The color reminds me of something nice; let's get the shirt. That guy is annoying the crap out of me; let's get out of here. If that instinctual response center didn't step in, she'd probably still be standing there holding the dang shirt sleeve.
Context Is Everything
- Even if you don't believe me that your emotions are involved in decision-making, even if you did that math problem step by step and you are still convinced that you are always logical and rational about all your decisions, I've got news for you. Your brain takes short-cuts. Whether you're aware of it or not. All the time.
- Perhaps the biggest short-cut your brain takes in decision-making is to rely on context.
- Here's one really good example of that:
- People were put in one of two rooms. One room had a chocolate bar over in the corner, and the other room had a can of Spam over in the corner. The chocolate and the Spam were both some distance away, they were wrapped up, not emitting any scents or anything. Each person, once seated in his or her given room, was given a bag of chips to eat. Everybody got exactly the same kind of chips.
- The people who ate the chips in the room with the chocolate bar said they liked the chips a whole lot more than the people who ate the chips in the room with the can of Spam.
- There was no difference in the chips. The subjects weren't influenced by the chocolate or the Spam through any other route than visually, and yet they were significantly influenced by the visual proximity of those items.
Chocolate or Spam? Don't need to think much about that choice.
(Hershey bar photo from Quia. Spam photo from The Geek Whisperer)
- Here's another example of how context influences our decisions. This time, the emotions get involved in ways we'd rather not admit.
- People were given dice and a small amount of money to gamble with.
- First they were told they would keep 40% of the money if they didn't gamble, and then they were given the opportunity to roll the dice. Next they were told they would lose 60% of the money if they didn't gamble, and they were given the opportunity to roll the dice. The outcomes are exactly the same, but they are worded differently.
- When people were told they would lose more if they didn't gamble, they rolled the dice far more often.
- Some of the subjects even said they knew the odds were the same, yet they just couldn't help themselves. This is because how the situation was framed (the context) triggered people's fears of losing resources.
This guy, a behavioral economist named Dan Ariely, has more examples about how context influences our decisions. The first 2:25 or so is a bit of a preamble, but then he gets into specific examples. It's about a 15 minute talk, but he's engaging in the way he presents his material, he's got a really good point about why we should care about all this, and I highly recommend it.
- What his talk comes down to is that we rely on things like context and optical illusions because making decisions is hard.
What Did the Doctor Say?
- Another short-cut our brains take is to rely on experts to help us out. If we're faced with a complex set of choices, we sit there and churn over the choices to try to arrive at a decision on our own. But if we're told that such-and-such an expert has advised that this choice is the best one, our brains churn over the problem for a significantly shorter amount of time, and we tend to make the same choice as what the expert has recommended.
- This is why you see commercials that feature someone in a white coat who is or looks like a doctor. Movie and TV stars in commercials, same thing. If we think that someone we respect or look up to for any reason has thought out the problem for us already, we tend to stop thinking and do what the "expert" recommends. Scary, but true.
If someone wearing a white coat like this guy is says we should do something, most of us stop thinking and do what he says.
(This guy actually is a doctor. He's Dr. Lawrence Raisz, and he's an expert in bone health at the New England Musculoskeletal Institute. Photo from U of CT Health Center)
- Another version of this is we get out our cell phones and call our friends, our spouses, our parents, and ask, "Do I get the tattoo or not?"
- When the decisions are about things we care about, things that are complex issues, things that have lots of facets and contingencies and maybes, the decisions get even harder. Our prefrontal cortex gets overwhelmed and we turn to things like context and experts to help us make the choice.
Add a Dose of Pleasure
- Okay, so you're getting the point that decision-making is hard, lots of things are involved, our brains turn to other inputs to make decisions more easily. It's already complicated to begin with. But there is (at least) one more element to the decision-making process, and that's pleasure.
- Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries with it an electrical impulse from one neuron in the brain to another. It travels from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (part of the limbic/emotional center, remember), and it follows pathways that lead to our old friend the prefrontal cortex.
The path that dopamine takes from its home in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is near the limbic system, up to the prefrontal cortex.
(Diagram from the NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Dopamine has a lot of different jobs. One of them is to help make our motor muscle movements smooth. People with Parkinson's Disease have a deficiency of dopamine.
- Another, more famous job of dopamine is to stimulate our "pleasure centers" which are more or less in the brain stem. When we do something our brain interprets as good, dopamine is released, it stimulates that reward center in the brain stem, we feel a sense of enjoyment, and so we want to do that good thing again.
- Similarly, when we make a decision that our brain interprets as good, dopamine is released, and we feel a sense of pleasure with the decision we've made. So we'll be more likely to make decisions like it again in the future.
- Our brains in effect train us to make decisions, perform tasks, and repeat the behavior based on whether or not we've gotten rewarded.
- Three researchers, Montague, Dayan, and Schultz, spent 15 years studying how monkeys make choices.
- They connected the monkeys to electrodes that tracked dopamine levels in their brains, and the monkeys were trained to push a bunch of buttons in a particular sequence. If they got the sequence right, they would get a squirt of juice -- a reward.
- They discovered a ton of things in their 15 years with the monkeys, but one of the main things they found was that before the monkeys got their reward, the dopamine neurons started to fire. The monkeys had learned to expect that when they got the light code right, they'd get the reward, which triggered the pleasure. The monkeys saw a pattern and connected getting the light code correct with pleasure.
- What this means for us is that, like the monkeys with their juice, we are constantly looking for patterns of behavior that will get us a reward. Last time I bought a shirt like this, that turned out to be a really good experience, so I'm going to buy another shirt like it. Or, last time I went into that store, there was a guy in there talking on his cell phone really loudly and that was annoying, so I'm not going to go in there again. We do this kind of thing all the time.
- Addicts are an extreme example of how we all respond to patterns and rewards. A lot of addicts talk about "triggers." When an alcoholic hears the pffft of someone opening a can of beer, they'll start to salivate and want a drink. Heroin addicts will start to want a fix if they see a needle or a belt or other equipment associated with shooting up. Their brains have been trained to expect a reward in response to certain patterns of behavior. Once part of that pattern is set in motion, their brains are already getting the dopamine ready.
I bet you're already anticipating the motion of levering open the bottle cap, the resultant pffft spray, perhaps the sound and the smell of it. Maybe you've also noticed the beads of moisture on the bottle. Thirsty yet? That's your hypothalamus and the dopamine getting you ready for something to drink.
(Photo from Channel 4 in Belfast)
- Another aspect of this is true, too. I'll let this guy named Jonah Lehrer, who's written a whole book about how the brain makes decisions, talk about the relationship between dopamine and patterns and addiction.
I talked to a woman named Ann Klinestiver, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1998, and, like many Parkinsonian patients, she was put on a drug called a Dopamine agonist. And the purpose of these drugs is to increase the amount of Dopamine in the brain.
One of the common side effects of these drugs is gambling compulsions. Some studies estimate that as many as 10 to 15 percent of patients on these drugs develop some sort of gambling problem. And in the case of Ann, it's a very sad story. It really ruined her life. She lost her entire life savings, more than $250,000. Her husband left her.
She had a compulsion for slot machines. She would spend 18 hours at a time putting quarters into one-armed bandits. And I think one of the reasons slot machines and games of chance in general are so addictive is because they hijack the Dopamine system.
The Dopamine system's great at finding patterns. It can find the pattern that predicts a squirt of juice, but it's terrible at dealing with random systems. It's terrible at dealing with that random-number generator inside the slot machine because it generates a consistently surprising reward.
Even though there's no pattern to find, we can't help but search for a pattern.
When Ann got a reward from a slot machine, when she got some coins in return, the end result was this surge of emotion, this surge of Dopamine that signaled something really good had happened. And so she became transfixed by this random system.
Her brain was literally trying to figure it out, in essence. It was trying to find the pattern that predicted the clanging coins, that predicted when she would win in the casino. But the reality, of course, is that there's no pattern to be found. You know that no matter how hard her Dopamine neurons tried, they would never find the sequence of events that predicted the payout. But because they were so saturated with neurotransmitter because she was on this Dopamine agonist drug, she simply couldn't walk away.
Jonah Lehrer talks about this topic and more of the elements of decision-making in his book How We Decide, which you can order from Amazon for about $10.
Besides All That, You're Tired
Now, add to all of this the fact that we're tired. We haven't had enough sleep the night before. Or it's the end of a long day and we've already had to make a ton of decisions.
- Research has shown that the act of making decisions themselves tires us out.
- This has been demonstrated, time and again, on voting ballots. Say there's a complicated proposition up for a vote. On some ballots, it's positioned at the top where voters are "fresh" when they first read it. On others, it's positioned farther down. On still others, it's at the end.
- The farther down the ballot, the more people voted no, and the more people abstained from voting on it altogether. By the time they got to the issue, they were tired of having to make so many choices, and they simply didn't have enough left in the mental tank to grapple with the complicated concepts.
- This is why nearly every single ballot puts those propositions right up front.
- Not only does decision-making tire us out, some decisions wear us out more than others.
- Easiest: someone else has made the choice and all you have to do is implement it. If the person in the white coat has told you to swallow the pill and you believe the person in the white coat, all you have to do is swallow the pill.
- A little harder: to think about the options you've been given and indicate some that you like better. This is like answering the question, "What are some of the movies you've seen lately that you've liked?" as opposed to answering the question, "What's your all-time favorite movie?"
- Hardest: to choose one thing from among a lot of options. This, my friends, is a trip to the grocery store.
- No wonder I have trouble making decisions when I'm tired at the grocery store.
- It's no mistake, by the way, that all those guilty pleasures are right next to the check-out stand. Those are called "impulse buys" in the retail business. What they're counting on is that you'll already be so fatigued by the other decisions you've had to make in the rest of the store that you'll be too tired to resist the candy bars and the National Enquirer and the mini-crossword puzzle book, and you'll also want to reward yourself for what you've just been through.
What It Comes Down To
So now that we know all of this, what do we do? We can't exactly reconfigure our brains to operate differently. Mainly, the people who talk about this all say that we can be aware of our limitations, understand how our brain works, and not get frustrated when it's not working at the speed or agility we'd like. Recognize that it's already done a ton of stuff for us today, and be patient.
Well, that's all very nice, but for me, it doesn't really help when I'm standing there with the loaf of bread in my hand, or when Wanda is standing there holding onto that danged shirt sleeve. So here's what I've done or tried in the past few days since I read about all this stuff. And it seems to help.
- Get more sleep. I hate this suggestion, but I have to say it because it's true. Sleep is like food to your brain. It needs it.
- Simplify. If you find yourself adding more criteria to a decision you're already having trouble making, stop. That's only going to make it harder for you to decide.
- Eliminate some of the factors involved in the decision, if you can. Get rid of the elements you care less about, or focus only on the one that's most important to you. If you're Wanda standing there holding the shirt, maybe you care most about how much money you'll have to spend. Maybe you care most about how it looked on you when you tried it on. Maybe you care most about whether your spouse will think you look hot in it. You might still make an emotional decision, but at least it'll be most in line with what you want after you've left the store.
- Give your brain a break. Put down the loaf of bread, walk over to the floral aisle or someplace where you can just look at pretty stuff but not be required to make any decisions. Then go back to the bread aisle, and probably the choice will seem obvious.
- Time Those Decisions. If you know you're tired, don't put yourself in a situation where you'll have to make lots of choices. Go to the grocery store earlier in the day. Don't get into a huge conversation with your spouse about whether to buy that house when you're about to go to bed. Intersperse thorny-decision-making times with activities that are fun and less mentally taxing. Your prefrontal cortex -- and your dopamine receptors! -- will thank you.
- Actually a couple researchers did have one big-picture statement to make. They said that since nearly everything about the brain links up to that reward system, which is governed by the central limbic system, we're all ultimately pawns of those most basic impulses: food and sex. Even the most high-falutin' and apparently selfless of our values, they say, can ultimately be traced back to those basics. So if you're having trouble choosing something, ask yourself, will it get me more food? Will it get me more sex? Supposedly, since that's what your brain is really grappling with anyway, getting straight to that point might help you make a decision more quickly and to your greater satisfaction.
According to some researchers, this is all we really want in the end: food and sex. In fact, just thinking about either of these two things -- particularly if the food is chocolate -- can reduce anxiety, improve mood, and even help people cope with physical pain. Man, that's powerful stuff.
(Photo from Neuromarketing)
Dan Vergano, Study: Emotion rules the brain's decisions, USA Today, August 6, 2006
Dermot McGrath, Where the Brain Makes Decisions, Wired, April 22, 2002
Elizabeth Landau, Why your brain can't always make good decisions, CNN.com, 1/12/2009
Dr. C. George Boeree, General Psychology, The Emotional Nervous System
Jonah Lehrer: Passions Of The Brain, interview with Terry Gross, NPR, March 2, 2009
Jonah Lehrer, A New State of Mind, Seed Magazine, August 8, 2008
Lisa Bendele, Professor explains how we make decisions, The Daily Princetonian, September 21, 2007
On Amir, Tough Choices: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain, Scientific American, July 22, 2008
Kathleen D. Vohs, et al., "Making choices imapirs self-control" (Abstract), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, January 25, 2010
Kara Rogers, Neuroeconomics: Studying How We Make Decisions, Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, July 21, 2009
Augenblick and Nicholson, Choice Fatigue: The Effect of Making Previous Choices on Decision Making, Stanford University Department of Economics, April 2009
Lee Dye, How the Brain Makes Quick Decisions, ABCNews.com, February 19, 2009
The Schizophrenia Homepage, New Research Provides Brain Clue to Making Best Choices for Self, March 13, 1997
Theallineed.com, Researchers find where brain learns to make decisions, 2005
3Dchem.com, Dopamine, January 2007