When you take rational decision-making to an extreme, it starts to look a lot like irrational indecision.
Honing your skill in rational decision-making—evaluating and judging options free of emotion and desire—might not be the most rational approach to getting a good result.
Consider a man named Elliot, the epitome of rational thinking gone awry. Elliot is legendary in the neuroscience world. He was smart, successful, a good decision-maker. Until one day in 1982, when surgeons removed a tumor from Elliot’s brain. They cut into a critical part of Elliot’s brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which essentially deleted Elliot’s emotional capacity. He had become, in the words of neurologist Antonio Damasio (co-creator of the Iowa Gambling Task I wrote about last month), ‘a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator.’
According to the classical theory of rational thinking, this vacuum of emotional capacity should have made Elliot a model of good decision-making. He was a smart guy. His rational mental tools were exquisitely sharp. He had no emotions to cloud his thinking.
Yet, without emotion to guide his judgment, he was incapable of making even the simplest decision. He couldn’t choose which chair to sit in. He couldn’t choose which color pen to use. Scheduling an appointment was an agonizing exercise for his neurologist. Don’t even think about a lunch date with this guy. It would take him all day to weigh the pros and cons of various dates, times and restaurants, and you’d still go home hungry. Assuming he could even make the decision that you were the one he wanted to chat up over lunch.
Unable to make a decision, Elliot became impossible to be around. His family fell apart, he got fired from his job, he went bankrupt. All because he could no longer feel emotion, that critical element that makes decision making possible.
Decisions require value judgments, and those value judgments are drawn from the part of our brain where we process emotion. When I try on a decision and pay attention to how I feel about it, when I pause and listen to my hunches, I’m more likely to make a decision I don’t end up regretting.
If you have a decision-making experience to share, good or bad, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.