Value-based & Cognitive Decision Making, and How to Cure Insanity

Value-based & Cognitive Decision Making, and How to Cure Insanity

Dustin Lien
May 15, 2015

Do you know what the literal antonym of the word, “rational” is? Insanity. And if that’s the case, we’ve all gone mad.

Every action we take, no matter how big or small, is driven either by a rational decision, or by the desire for the instant gratification of a chemical rush (which is usually the insane decision).

Let me explain to you how I know we’re all crazy.

Example: Most people know that regular exercise has numerous proven benefits such as reduced stress, increased happiness due to the release of endorphins, prevention of certain cancers and osteoporosis, an improved body, and self confidence.

Despite most people knowing how important regular exercise is, according to the CDC, 80% of American adults don’t get the recommended amount of exercise. 80% of us are insane.

This isn’t just true with exercise and other health-related things, it’s also true with habits, routines, and how we prioritize the things in our lives that affect success.

Why do we make bad decisions?

A study in 2012 found that we rely on two separate brain areas to make decisions: one that determines the risk versus reward (value-based), and another that relies on cognitive control. Cognitive control is what keeps us in check based on our overall goals, but it’s constantly fighting with the risk versus reward area, which is strongly driven by behavioral patterns.

For example, you might not buy junk food and keep it around the house while you’re dieting because you know that’s not going to help the urges (cognitive control), but when you’re out at dinner with friends and everyone’s ordering desert, you think, “what would it hurt to have just one slice of cheesecake?”(risk versus reward). The risk versus reward part of our decision making is quick to take the easy, instant gratification way out because it’s triggered by behavior, so we have to train our cognitive control part to be stronger.

How can we cure insanity?

1. Recognize your negative triggers

I attempt to wake up a few hours before I need to start working so I can write. I’ve learned 2 valuable lessons: I fall back asleep if I try to write sitting up in bed immediately after waking up, and I fall back asleep if I’m able to turn off the alarm without getting up. So now I make sure to put the alarm on the other side of the room so I have to walk over to shut it off, and I write sitting at my desk. By recognizing the triggers that cause us to make poor decisions, we can dramatically increase our chances of making good ones.

2. Never act on impulse

We usually make the wrong decision if we act impulsively. That’s why the infomercial industry is expected to hit $250 Billion this year. “If you buy now, you’ll get a second one free!” Impulse decisions are controlled by the risk versus reward part of our brains, and we are quick to say yes to that side because it feels so good to be bad. The chemical rush of acting on impulse is fleeting though.

3. Before making a decision, ask yourself if it will get you closer to your goal or not

You’ll never regret making a decision that gets you closer to your goal, but there’s a good chance you’ll regret the alternative. One of my favorite techniques for decision making is to step outside of my body and look at myself from a stranger’s perspective. With all emotion removed from a situation, you can look at it rationally.

Focusing on long-term results helps making good decisions easier. Then again, maybe I’m insane.