How not thinking can lead to better decisions

Ever since we were young we have heard adults say, “Think before you speak.”  In school we are taught the importance of analyzing our decisions. We have essay topics like, “What do you feel about this and why?” However, how can you say why you feel the way you feel? Your emotions — not rational thoughts — govern your feelings, and emotions are hard to explain.

Some researchers wanted to test how analyzing your thoughts can affect your decisions. They offered their subjects different brands of jam and asked which ones they preferred. Some of the subjects only had to taste the jam and offer their opinion while the others had to write down why they preferred that particular type of jam.

Sometimes making a decision can just wear you down. Image from Creative Commons.
Sometimes making a decision can just wear you down. Image from Creative Commons.

Those who had to analyze their opinions were less likely to have the same opinions of experts as opposed to those who didn’t. Those who didn’t have to think about their opinions just chose the jam that gave them the most pleasure. They didn’t think about why they liked it better — they just did.

However, those who had to write why they preferred that particular kind of jam, “I just did,” didn’t seem like a good enough answer, so they made their decision based on on factors they could verbalize such as its color or how many berries it had, despite these things not affecting taste at all.

Believe it or not, emotions can be a good thing. In John Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, he talks about the science of decision making and how decisions are made using a combination of both your emotional and rational brain. In the book he explains that the emotional brain — or limbic brain — can take in a lot of complex information at once, much of it that doesn’t make it to our conscious awareness.

The jam tasters’ preferences came from thousands of different factors stimulating their taste buds. They couldn’t consciously think about all these factors, but their emotional brains automatically knew that they liked it and made a quick decision.

You may be thinking, “Yeah, but that’s just telling me whether I like jam or not. I should ignore my emotions and think rationally when making important decisions,” and you might be right most of the time, but don’t underestimate the importance of emotions or gut feelings in important situations.

For instance, Lehrer’s book also describes the anecdote of Lieutenant Commander Riley in the Iraq-Kuwait war in 1991. As Riley was monitoring the radar he noticed a blip. There was nothing strange about the blip, and it looked like the many other blips of A-6 bombers that flew in and out of the base every day.

Something about this particular blip that didn’t sit right in Riley’s stomach. He usually identified objects based on their altitude. Iraqi silkworm missiles usually flew at 1,000 feet while other jets flew at 3,000. The 909 radar operator had entered incorrect tracking numbers and for an agonizing forty-four seconds Riley had no idea what altitude the object was flying at. The object was quickly approaching and he had to act fast.

Riley ordered to shoot down the object, which turned out to be a enemy missile. After later deliberation with a cognitive psychologist, they determined that the blip seemed strange because Riley subconsciously picked up the blip entering the screen at a slightly different interval from the planes he had seen countless times.

Riley’s emotional brain had picked up on this subtle change and had translated it into a strange feeling. The same is true for the research subjects that had tasted jam. Their emotional brains had picked up on all the subtle factors that makes good jam and translated it into pleasure.

While it’s good to consciously analyze your decisions at times, you can’t ignore your gut feelings. Particularly when it comes to opinions and tastes, you shouldn’t let someone keep you from liking something just because it doesn’t make sense. Just remember, it does make sense to your emotional brain.