The Science behind our decisions

Or “why we do what we do”. (or even “what I’ve been reading”.)

I have a growing interest in Cognitive Science. Long story short, I did psychotherapy for a couple of years (and that was by far the best investment in my life, btw). With time, I became more and more intrigued by my own reactions and how many times I perceived myself acting on some impulse from out of nowhere. This nowhere is our subconscious, and our reactions or responses are the results of how our brain perceives situations. So far, nothing new. But why, so many times, do we respond to situations in a manner that we know isn’t the best, yet we seem unable to control it? More, why, after realizing you misinterpreted some situation, do you find yourself reacting exactly the same way again even though you know it’s not good or necessary?

We humans tend to think very highly of ourselves. We are surely capable of amazing things. Shakespeare once wrote a text which many people live by:

What piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

“How noble in reason”. There are tons of people who believe their rational side is much stronger than the emotional or irrational side. If like me you live surrounded by engineers, you know how they are particularly inclined to think they are purely logical minds. Many of their favourite shows or series praise the ideal logical mind: Spock, House, Sheldon. But even among those Spock-wannabes, it’s very easy to perceive that egos, appearance, defensiveness and well, tribalism plays a strong part.

On the other hand, I’m also intrigued by our reactions to the different. Let’s take racism for instance – it makes absolutely no sense. We all came from Africa, we all have immigrants in our roots – be that Indians or Vikings. I don’t know the author, but this quote is brilliant: “Illegal immigration is not a new problem…Natives Americans use to call it White People”. For me it’s even more absurd when it happens in places like Brazil, a country known by its diversity. There where the native Indians, then came the Europeans, they brought the Africans, and tada, you have Brazil. But there are some people there who pride themselves in being descendants of Italian, German or some other European background, and look down on other people. But when their ancestors came to Brazil, there were lots of displays of xenophobia against these poor, hungry, and houseless immigrants, running away from the war, and who were then granted land by our government.

But as absurd as it is, this behaviour is way too common to think it’s restricted to some people culturally limited (I recommend reading this article if you think otherwise). I mean, I find myself sometimes being angry at some group of people because the way some individuals of this group treat me. I gotta tell you, sometimes it’s really hard being a foreigner, speaking with an accent and being generally clueless about the local costumes around here. And no, I’m not speaking about British people… but even when my reactions were towards a certain group of people, I knew rationally that this was absurd. There are good people and bad people in any race, country, culture and so on. But the fact that I felt inclined to jump into this reaction caught me by surprise. I mean, I’m not the most politically correct person, but it’s one thing to make jokes about certain nationalities and another one to automatically go into defensive mode when meeting one of them.

So, why, so much of the time, do our reactions ignore reason?

The answer to this question is complicated, and there are many books about it, and I’ve been reading a few. Part of the answer lies in our amygdala, a small piece of our brain that can process information much faster than the neocortex and can hijack our system if there is signs of danger – that’s a very, very simplified answer. When our brain recognize an object, our amygdala processes how we feel about that object. If that object has caused any trauma in the past, it’s very likely the amygdala will trigger a fight-or-fly reaction. So, when we are in a situation, our brain recovers the past information about that situation. If most of our memories about something are negatives, no wonder we will have a negative reaction to it – even when that something isn’t precisely the same and very likely doesn’t have the same intentions.

This clearly has a profound impact in our happiness, but can we expand this science beyond psychotherapy? Well, turns out, everything we deal is affected by this. How we decide our finances, our relationships, our interests, our health or activities, all our decisions are based on our experiences, how our brain reacts to things. Cognitive Science is exactly the study of “how information is represented and transformed in a brain or in a machine. It consists of multiple research disciplines, including psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, learning sciences, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and education”.

When I started reading about it, one of the first books I read was Emotional Intelligence – Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. You may think this subtitle is too strong, but many studies have shown that people with high IQ many times fail in professional and personal life for believing that IQ is all that matters and being unable to integrate themselves with others. However, this is a dense and scientific book, and my damaged (by internet) attention span found it difficult to really dive into it. For the past year I’ve been looking more and more into this area, and I’m finding that maybe starting with lighter books would be more productive.

The second book I bought about it is Nudge – Improving your decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. It’s an amazing book, showing how simple nudges help people make better decisions. For example, did you know that the way food is displayed in a cafeteria influences the selections people make, including how healthy their meal will be? There is the ethical discussion about this, of course: How much should we influence people? How do we control the boundaries of influencing people’s behaviour? Should we influence behaviour at all? But this book has an extensive chapter about finances, and that makes me anxious, so I can’t read it too much right now.

So, I bought two other books. I’ve read only the introduction so far of Predictably Irrational. The one I’m reading right now is called Emotional Design – Why do we love (or hate) everyday things (thanks to Kathy‘s twitt!). That would be the marketing side of Cognitive Science. Why some products are so appealing? How to design a product to appeal to most people? How to decide which people will you  appeal with our product? In the first chapters, this book explains what is involved in product design: the visceral, the behavioural and the reflective design. The visceral design means the appearance, and pretty things get a better first impression. The behaviour design means its usability, if it’s effective at what it does. And the reflective design means the memories and feelings that object brings to you. Which one is more important? Haven’t we all got a useless object, that sometimes isn’t even pretty, but holds a strong memory for us? Or we often buy things that are pretty but not very useful? And since aesthetics are different among cultures, and memories are very personal, you can guess the difficulty inherent in designing products.

I haven’t finished this book yet – nor any of those previously mentioned – but I’m really excited about the area of Cognitive Science. It opens a new dimension on how our brain works, and how emotions play a great deal in everybody’s life. I’m considering applying for a master’s degree in the area, but I will have to wait at least another two years to drop my overseas status and be able to pay the regular fee. But until then, there’s lots of material available, like finishing the books I bought. My plan is to return to them in the reverse order I mentioned them in this post.

And with all that reading a bit of Round Ireland with a Fridge to distract me. Will I ever finish them all?

A Ciência por trás das nossas decisões – tradução vindo depois do almoço 🙂