(This is the third in a four part series on how growing complexity is changing our lives.) And when it comes to decisions, complexity is indeed the byword. Not only do we have an over abundance of product choices, we have an abundance of freedom in most areas of our life. For example, there are myriad choices for education. And there are many ways to obtain that education financially.
There is of course the much discussed acceleration of change in our lives due to technological advances. There is also the increasing complexity from digging deeply into our physical universe. Our world grows in complexity as we discover the inter-connectedness of all things. We marvel at the complexity of human neurobiology. That neurobiology leads us to many questions including the question of how humans decide.
One of the issues with deciding, as we know, is that most often making a decision reduces the remaining options. A door is closed, so to speak. We make incalculable numbers of decisions every day. Most of us have not stopped to think about how we make them. One of the main mysteries around human choice is the actual process for making those choices.
How Decisions Are Made:
The latest in neuroscience and psychology indicates that we do not decide in the manner we would like to believe we do. It appears that we make choices based purely on emotions. We then justify those decisions through the use of “logic.” Even in the cases where we may study all the detailed options, the final decision is an emotional one.
“It is the argument that all mental phenomena and actions are also, directly or indirectly, causally produced—according to the laws of nature (such as those of physics and neurobiology)—by previous events that lie beyond the control of the agents.”—Free Will and Neuroscience: From Explaining Freedom Away to New Ways of Operationalizing and Measuring It
I spoke with one young lady recently who asked me for guidance on a decision she needed to make. Obviously I cannot share the details. So here is the sketchy outline. She laid out three clear options. As I listened to her describe the situation and the options, I concluded that she had indeed thought through the details. From my view as a “disinterested party,” it seemed really clear to me what the best option was. Indeed, I was a bit puzzled as to why we should be discussing this pending decision at all.
I tried asking many questions, hoping that she would make the final determination on her own. Even leading questions didn’t seem to help. Finally, she blurted out, “You are my mentor. I’m asking you what I should do!” When I refused to “tell her what to do,” she relented. “I know I should take the second option,” she said. “But I wanted you to tell me the first option was right.” I then validated her decision that the second option was likely the best one.
The first option was not right. It was a financial disaster. Yet, emotionally, that is what she wanted to do. It remains to be seen if she sticks with the “correct,” and logical, solution. For me, the emotional content was wanting to be a good mentor for her. For her, the emotional content was wanting to take the easy, lazy way out of her predicament.
It is important to us as individuals and important to society that we believe we are in fact making decisions. Consider what happens to the rule of law if we do not have free will. If all our actions are predetermined (by physical neurons wired by experiences), then we cannot be held responsible for our actions. That, of course, would be absolute chaos. So, we continue to propagate what may, in the end, be a myth: we are free to make decisions.
For the purposes of living together in society, forwarding the myth of decisions makes sense. For our own comfort, we may also want to live with that myth. It gives us a sense of power and control. Yet there is also power in recognizing that our decisions are not free but rather the results of a lifetime of experiences and emotional responses.
Here’s a paradox: Understanding the truth of the situation may actually allow us to exert more “logic” over our decisions. It may enhance our ability to choose other than our first, emotional, gut decision! If we wake up to the fact that the way we see reality is through the wiring of our neuronal network, we may have a chance to actually create a simulated free will!