Environmental triggers and biological drives cleverly work in the clandestine shadows of the mind, dictating behavior; the actor is acted upon. Are we free to act or just puppets in a cruel game? Without dredging up ancient homunculus arguments, at least on the level of conscious existence, we are free to choose. We have significant opportunities to achieve or fail. So wisely deciding when opportunity arises is essential. Wise decisions requires an intricate weaving of emotion and logic.
Unseen motivational forces have significant pull. We often act first, and cognitively justify the choice after it has been made. As humans, we proudly tout our self-governing abilities but many routinely sell our birthright of free-will for a mere bowl of porridge. Instead of exercising our freedom, acting to achieve intentions, we often settle to be acted on by happenstances.
Creating Space Between Impulse and Action
Our mind interprets our compulsive responses congratulating or chastising our ego for the wisdom or stupidness. Through smooth deceptions, self-righteous justifications, and lack of awareness, we explain away chaotic future-destroying action as appropriate or unavoidable. To change habitual bouts of self-destruction, we must recognize our wayward drifts and make corrections. Our best tool to achieve this noble aspiration is putting on the mental brakes, slowing down habitual reactions, and making space for the cognitive brain to join the party. In Dialectic Behavior Therapy, we refer to this as using our wise mind.
Rollo May wrote, “freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one” (2012, p. 54).
Evolution has compassionately introduced a buffer between the environment, inner urges and our responding behavior. Consciousness enables those, who effectively call upon it, the power to disengage from blind driving forces and introduce a collection of helpful knowledge, conveniently stored in memory.
Emotions and Wise Decisions
Emotions are necessary in the decision process. Many suggest problem solving is a cognitive function, and we should leave our emotions at home.
Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at University of Southern California, has shown through research that emotions play a central role in cognitions and decision making. He explains, “…the emotional signal accomplishes a number of important tasks. Covertly or overtly, it focuses attention on certain aspects of the problem and thus enhances the quality of reasoning over it.” He continues, “the emotional signal is not a substitute for proper reasoning. It has an auxiliary role, increasing the efficiency of the reasoning process and making it speedier” (2005, location 2072).
Damasio and his team conducted research on previously normal functioning patients that sustained damage to brain regions necessary for the deployment of certain classes of emotions and feelings. They discovered that these patients’ ability to govern their lives was extremely disturbed even though their reasoning abilities remained intact.
Damasio explained, “the patients were not making use of the emotion-related experience they had accumulated in their lifetimes. Decisions made in these emotion-impoverished circumstances led to erratic or downright negative results, especially so in terms of future consequences” (location 2019).
Our pause, therefore, isn’t to extricate emotions from the wise decision making process but to dampen high arousal so cognitions also have space to contribute. We draw wisdom from many areas.
“Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.“~Samuel Butler
Wise Decisions in Hindsight Still May Be Wrong
Decisions aren’t guaranteed to produce the best consequence, not even wise decisions. We don’t have all the information. Life is complex and dynamic, continually moving. We can’t judge the rationality of a choice by the eventual outcome. If we place a bet on a high probability outcome with a high payout and still lose, we still made a rational choice.
A rational choice meets these criteria:
- It is based on the decision maker’s current information, psychological state, cognitive capacities, social relationships and feelings.
- It considers the possible consequences of the choice.
- It considers probability of outcomes.
- The choice is adaptive and flexible as events unfold in reaction to the decision (Hastie and Dawes, 2009).
We are blessed with the tools for wisdom, however, we prefer shortcuts. We throw rational choice away for energy preserving ease. Sometimes, this has adaptive value. We can’t overly engage in every simple decision. We would accomplish very little. Wisdom doesn’t demand we eliminate shortcuts. Optimizing time is essential. A wise decision maker does, however, know which decisions require effort and which ones can they can regulate to other processes.
Common decision-making shortcuts that dismiss wisdom for ease are:
- Habit: We do what we’ve done before. Choice is automated and unexamined.
- Conformity: We do what other people would do.
- Rules: We do what our religion, political party, or culture mandates (Hastie and Dawes, 2009).
Again, there is nothing wrong with shortcuts, unless, of course, they are perpetuating problems, keeping us stuck, and narrowing our vision. In that case, we need to reclaim our freedom, and spend the energy to change.
William Glasser’s choice theory teaches, “we choose everything we do, including the misery we feel.” He goes on to explain that all other people and circumstances provide is information. The information then “goes into our brains, here we process it and then decide what to do” (1999, p. 4).
Better Decisions; Better Futures
We can enhance our futures. To receive this powerful gift, we must purposely improve behaviors now, gaining awareness of underlying emotions, automatic choices, and energy conserving shortcuts. Pause, take a deep breath, and then thoughtfully proceed in wisdom. Our emotions are often on target, leading towards intentions, guiding choices with hidden wisdom. Mindful awareness, practical experience and rational inspection sort through powerful emotions and detect when they are off-course. Wise choices relies on multiple sources of information, checking and counterchecking, and integrating these great data bases of knowledge. And with better information, we make better choices and experience better futures.
Damasio, A. (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.
Glasser, W. (1999). Choice Theory: A New Psychology Of Personal Freedom. HarperCollins Publishers.
May, Rollo, (2012). Freedom and Destiny. Norton.