My husband and I are rebuilding our 1960s cabin in the Northwoods. That means decisions. Thousands of them. Rational decisions, of course. No emotional decisions, because those cost more money.
The time-honored model of making smart choices is to make a list of pros and cons, right? We set emotion aside, we study the situation, weigh the variables. We reason our way to a sound decision. And yet…it’s not that simple. Choice requires value judgments, and those judgments take place in the limbic system, the part of our brain where we store emotion.
When we bought our cabin a few years ago, it was very much an emotional decision. On paper, it made no sense. Tiny lot, steep driveway, failing septic, 3-1/2 hour drive, no budget and no desire for a summer cottage. By all rational criteria, we should have said ‘Cute place, not interested.’ We did say that, in fact. We made a rational decision a long time ago that we would never own a place up north. That was then. Now, we were feeling the full rush of our limbic systems kicking in, hollering, “Are you out of your minds??? Look at this lake! Listen to those loons! You used to love coming up north!”
No matter how rationally we discussed the ‘why nots,’ the only time I didn’t have knots in my stomach is when we daydreamed about saying yes. A look in Michael’s eye told me he felt about the same. So we took a deep breath and signed on the dotted line.
When you boil decision-making down to its most basic function, it’s about prediction. Which decision does your experience tell you is going to feel right?
Which one is going to feel right. A team of neuroscientists devised an ingenious experiment [http://bit.ly/9sfNSY] to explore just how useful ‘feeling’ is to decision-making.
Their conclusion? Very useful. Emotion, they found, is a powerful channel for revealing wisdom that hasn’t yet surfaced in our conscious awareness.
Researchers gave a group of subjects $2,000 and four decks of cards. As players turned over a card, it told them whether they’d won or lost money. They believed it was random, but of course it was rigged. Two of the decks had fewer winning cards. As subjects made their draws, the research team took skin readings to gauge nervousness and anxiety levels.
What the scientists found was astonishing. After drawing only 10 cards, the players began experiencing unconscious anxiety when their hand reached for the wrong deck. Yet it took, on average, about 50 draws before the players started making a conscious decision to reach for a lucrative deck, and 80 draws before they could explain why. It took ‘reason’ 50 cards – and it took emotion just 10. The players’ limbic systems very quickly grasped that there was a pattern and that drawing from the wrong deck meant losing money.
Something told us we’d regret it if we passed up this little cabin. Turns out that something was a visceral response that has paid us back a thousand times over. We’ve now moved permanently, year-round to our beautiful lake, on a tiny lot with a driveway that’s impassable when the snow flies and a costly septic system that’s being replaced this winter.
Best decision we ever made. Not that we’re surprised.
We just had a feeling….
If you want to know more about the science of decision-making and other cool ways neuroscience is reshaping how we think about daily life—please, make a decision to sign up for my newsletter. And stay tuned for my next post about the surprising outcome of excess reason on decision-making.