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HOW TO MAKE
DECISIONS The key to making good decisions lies in understanding how our automatic thinking system interacts with our controlled system, and how to use both effectively, writes Andy Gibson
here is an old philosopher’s joke, often attributed to 14th century French theologian Jean Buridan, about a perfectly logical donkey. This unfortunate animal, affectionately known as Buridan’s Ass, is placed equidistant between two identically-sized piles of hay, and starves to death. With no reason to pick one pile over the other, it simply cannot choose. We are not like the logical donkey. Unlike Buridan’s Ass, our minds have evolved to take action. Rather than being perfectly rational in our choices, we are surprisingly emotional, making quick choices, taking action and moving on with our days.
Dialogue | Jun/Aug 2015
Without emotions, we struggle to get anything done Indeed, without emotions, we struggle to get anything done. Research conducted with patients with brain damage showed that people who lost their emotional systems also lost the ability to make even the most minor choices. They could think through the options, but like the logical donkey, they never knew when it was time to stop thinking and take action.
One mind, two systems That’s not to say we are not capable of making thoughtful and considered choices. It’s just that we are also designed to make quick, instinctive decisions when we need to. Our minds seem to operate two distinct systems of thought, each useful in different situations. Research by psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Keith Stanovich on these two systems of thought have revolutionized how we think about how we think. One system – let’s call it the “automatic” system – is designed to make quick choices based on previous experience, deciding when to cross the road, answering familiar questions we’ve heard before, undertaking all the basic operations of the day. We then have a second system – a “controlled”
Published on Jun 1, 2015
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