Understanding How We Make Decisions

Understanding the mental processes that are involved in how we make choices and decisions, is always useful to know. We can use that knowledge in many everyday situations, whenever we have to make a decision of any sort.

If we understand what’s going on in our heads, we have more control over what we do, and why we do it.  We can take control of our lives, instead of suddenly realizing what a mess they are, and wondering how it all went so wrong.

Disclaimer: People who have lucky or successful lives are rarely driven to much self examination – but those sort of people will probably not be reading this article.  So I’m assuming my readers are normal people, with normal lives, who probably have some interest in addiction. That means you are highly likely to have lives that are not what you once hoped for, and are looking for ways to make your lives better in some way.  Hopefully this article will help you to do that by explaining how decisions are made, and what influences how we make those decisions.

What we do depends on the decisions we make.

And our decisions depend on how we feel our For and Against factors stack up in our heads: our motives.  And our motives are linked to our personal situation, our past experiences, and our emotions.

At some level, we always weigh up the “Should I?” or “Shouldn’t I?” debate that goes on in our heads whenever we have a decision to make. There are conflicting motives, for and against, and somehow we must decide between them.  How do we do it?  We construct a mental balance sheet – a personal psychological Cost Benefit Analysis.

Constructing Our Psychological Cost Benefit Analysis

We assess what we see as our personal benefits or disadvantages in favour of doing something, against what we see as our benefits or disadvantages in favour of not doing something.  Then we choose ‘Yes I will’ or ‘No I won’t’ in accordance with whichever side we feel has the stronger arguments.

Often this is not a fully conscious decision, and it seems as if we just ‘do it’, but at some level, these choices are being debated in our heads, and decisions are being made.

The Great Chocolate Cake Dilemma

For example, if we imagine we are slim, and with no health problems (this is a theoretical example!), and someone asks us if we would like an extra slice of chocolate cake, we quickly ask ourselves, “Shall I have that extra slice of chocolate cake, or not?” And in a flash, we decide – “Well, of course I want that slice of chocolate cake!”, and so we say “Yes!”.

It seemed to us that we didn’t think about that decision at all, but in fact we did.  Our decision was influenced by what we already know about ourselves: We already know we are slim and healthy, therefore our arguments ‘for’ having the cake, far outweighed our ‘against’ factors – in fact, we have no real reason why we shouldn’t say “Yes”.  And we already knew that before we made the decision. It was already factored into our  For and Against balance sheet of motives. The slim and healthy person already knows that they have no real ‘against’ factors for that decision at all, so any mental conflict or actual thinking, are minimal.

However, if we happen to have a cholesterol problem, or are overweight or diabetic, it’s not so easy.  We do have to think about it.  We already know we have some quite compelling Against motives to factor into our decision.  We go through the same process:  we sum up in our head all our personal For and Against factors that are involved before we can come to a decision.  The mental process is just the same as that of the slim healthy person, but, for us, our decision is more complicated because more weight is associated with the Against side of our motives.

We Won’t Always Make the Most Sensible Decision

We might decide, “Yes I will, because my desire for the cake outweighs what I know are the risks and negative health consequences for me”.  So even though we know it’s probably not in our best interests – we decide “I’d rather eat it anyway”.  Or we might decide, “No, I won’t – I really do want it, but I also want to live a long and healthy life, and so I’ll say No”.

Whichever side of the yes/no decision comes out ahead for us at the time, determines what we decide to do.  It’s personal choice – everyone will have different for and against motives, on different occasions, and everyone can come to different conclusions.

Repetition will reinforce behaviour, until it becomes a habit.

Research into how we behave, has shown that the more frequently we make the same calculations with the same ‘for versus against’ result, leading to the same outcome decision, and therefore, the same behaviour, the less we think about the process, and the more we are likely to keep doing the same thing every time, ‘without thinking’.

That ‘decision’ is now being made on autopilot, and we don’t really think of it as a decision at all anymore.  It has become a habit.  Once some behaviour has become a habit, and we are no longer thinking about whether we should continue to do it or not, our behaviour will not change unless something happens, or someone does something, to make us re-think what we do.

Usually, something happens to drastically shift our For and Against psychological balance sheet, and forces us to stop, think, rethink, and recalculate our Cost Benefit Analysis.

Maybe we have a heart attack and have to change what we eat, or how much we exercise – bad news for the Chocolate Cake Dilemma!  Maybe our child gets Asthma and the doctor tells us we have increased the chance of this happening because we’ve been exposing our kids to cigarette smoke in the home.  Maybe our wife or husband leaves us and tells us they will not return until we go and get help for our addiction.

As long as nothing happens to change how we tally up our weight of the ‘rewards’ against the ‘disadvantages’ of our actions, our choices, and behaviour, we will not change what we do

See How and Why I Gave Up Smoking

and What Will It Take Before You Ask for Help?

Questions? Contact me, or Leave a Comment below

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