To exercise in the morning versus evening? To buy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Elmo, or Scooby Doo toy? Blueberry or apple pie for tomorrow? Basil lime daiquiri or a lava flow? Work from home or muddle my way in? Catch up on Dexter or the Walking Dead? Order Thanksgiving meal from Fresh Direct or Garden of Eden?
Life is one long decision-making process. We make tons of quick decisions; others we hem and haw over. Sometimes all this decision-making occurring within the same hour. I mean, all those questions I just posed above, I asked myself before 9am today. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Just this past week The Society for Judgment and Decision Making held its annual conference in Minneapolis. Which begs the question: how did they choose Minneapolis? At last year’s conference (which was in Seattle) they discussed mourning rituals after losses of loved ones, decision processes underlying how people value lives under resource scarcity, a behavioral economic analysis of a contingency management treatment program (In plain English: the use of methadone) and prompts impacting vaccination decisions. Wow. Those sound more complicated than my morning ritual decision-making process. But still all my decisions including Dexter versus the Walking Dead are important to my everyday life and development as a life-long decision-maker and in general, as a human being.
Decision-making is a distinctly human activity. We get schooled very early on in life on the decision-making process. A four-year is already at the stage of beginning to understand how decisions have consequences. Thus, by the time most people enter the workforce they have been making decisions for a really long time. Being an employee means that your colleagues depend on you making decisions correctly. Being an organization leader or manager means you make decisions that impact many others. Making decisions is what managers and leaders are paid to do. Decision-making is one of the defining characteristics of leadership. It is actually a core skill set noted in most job descriptions. Yet, there isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t read or hear a news story that makes you wonder, “What were they thinking?” or “Who actually made that decision?” In general, I am a rather calm manager (or so I believe and no one dares tell me otherwise). I try to be as supportive as possible and get people to process their decisions without me giving them too much of my opinion beforehand. But, when I was pregnant, those hormones turned me into a much less calm individual. At one point, I actually did ask two employees who were standing before me “what the hell were you thinking?” and proceeded to show them how their decision-making process was just flawed every step of the way. I can tell you they never again made that same mistake. But usually that’s not my style.
But people , and in particular key organizational leaders, do have to realize that making a decision implies that there are alternative choices to be considered, and in such a case we want not only to identify as many of these alternatives as possible but to choose the one that (1) has the highest probability of success or effectiveness and (2) best fits with our goals, mission, values and needs at large. There has to be an understanding that our chosen actions are influenced by our context, biases, emotions, and helpfully at times cost/benefit analyses.
We all make decisions all the time. We make so many decisions that there are grand number of society’s, conferences, and organizations devoted to it. There is the Society for Medical Decision, Institute of Decision Making (particularly focused on consumer decision making in the modern age), the Center for Shared Decision-Making, Informed Medical Decisions Foundation and so on. There is also the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. There are times in the workplace, where meetings are held to contemplate what decision one will make at the next decision-making meeting. How meta!
What amazes me is all this attention to the academic nature of decision making and all the talk about decision-making but so many times decisions are just made based on one’s gut or in the heat of the moment. For example, when I decided to go to boarding school it was a gut-based decision. When I decided to go live abroad in Spain: it was a gut-based, very much in the moment decision. Each had long-lasting impacts. These long-ago previously-made decisions have set in motion certain options and in essence “deactivated” others. No decision stands alone.
Again, decision-making is a distinctly human activity. It’s what that great, big frontal lobe is for. The frontal lobe is literally an area in the brain located at the front of each cerebral hemisphere. The frontal lobe contains most of the dopamine-sensitive neurons in the cerebral cortex. Dopamine is a media darling and gets noted for its association with reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. Aha! Furthermore, the frontal lobe reaches full maturity around only after the 20s. Another Aha! Explains a lot, especially in terms of our younger work colleagues. Some may even argue that frontal lobe maturity doesn’t really occur nowadays until mid-30s, if that. Think about it. The frontal lobe provides us with the ability to recognize future consequences resulting from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions, override and suppress socially unacceptable responses. Does it seem that this type of ability is getting further and further pushed back age-wise? We must therefore be very kind to our frontal lobes. Although, perhaps a little knock to the frontal lobe may occasional lead to some enhanced common sense.
While we approach thanksgiving, I am grateful for the frontal lobe. I’m grateful for the decisions I have made. I am the sum of those decisions. And, I am where I am at because of them. I like to check in with myself on a weekly basis to assess what was the most “impactful” (not really a word but its used a lot lately) or best decision I made that week. Some people like to leave such a process for an end-of-the-year personal reflection but considering that we make 100s of decisions a day that is a lot of personal data that can accumulate. By doing said reflection on a timelier basis you might be surprised how those little often-dismissed small decisions really were a major turning point on the way to grander moments.
So on this day, where we prepare Tryptophan-laden meals and start experiencing an inordinate amount of sleepiness, I am grateful to the frontal lobe and the ensuing up-hill battle it will be engaged in the next few days. Just because its thanksgiving doesn’t mean that the decision-making party in our heads stops. I lift this basil lime daiquiri (that’s the one I decided to go with) in its honor.
P.S. In all seriousness Happy Thanksgiving and may we be blessed with loved ones