As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a big fan of podcasts. Radio Lab (produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR) is one of my current favorites. A recent episode on the topic of “choice” discussed a fascinating scientific research study that had unexpected results and significant implications. Here’s a summary:
Two people are given two different sets of numbers to remember. One person gets two numbers, while the other gets seven. After being told their number sets, the two individuals are asked to walk down a hall and go to another room where they’ll be asked to recite their numbers. While walking down the hall, they’re approached (in a seemingly unplanned fashion) by a kind staff member who says that, as a special thank you for participating in the study, they can have one of two special snacks. The first snack is a big, gooey slice of chocolate cake. The second is a small, healthy bowl of fruit salad. They were asked to make a choice between the two.
Oddly, the people trying to remember two numbers almost always picked the fruit salad while people remembering seven almost always chose the cake. Coincidence? Nope.
Yes…But What Does It MEAN?
The researchers concluded that there are two parts of the brain involved in decision-making: the “rational” brain and the “emotional” brain. When the rational brain is busy trying to remember something significant (like a string of seven numbers), the emotional brain takes over in the decision-making process and, apparently, an unhealthy slice of chocolate cake is a thoroughly emotional choice. Those remembering just two numbers were more capable of using their rational brains and suppressing their emotional brains; thus, the healthier fruit salad decision was made.
It sounded like a stretch when I first heard it, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. When making decisions, we need our wits about us. When we’re distracted, even by something as simple as remembering a string of numbers, we’re more likely to make decisions that appeal to our emotions. These are the choices that feel comfortable and reassuring. They aren’t necessarily the rational, well thought-out decisions.
Let Your Rational Brain Focus on the Important Things
So, what does this teach us? The simple answer is this: If you want to make smart decisions, use your rational brain. In order to do that, you have to make sure that part of the brain isn’t distracted by something else, like your to-do list or some unresolved conflict.
If you’re trying to make rational decisions and avoid emotional ones, don’t clutter your rational brain with unnecessary fluff. Keep it as empty as possible so it has the energy to focus on the important things. An easy way to do this is to simply write things down and get them out of your head.
When I heard about this experiment, I wondered how it might have gone differently if the individuals had been allowed to write down the string of numbers. The conclusions seem to suggest that this would have led to everyone choosing fruit salad since, having written down the information, the rational brain would have been free to make all the smart decisions in the world.
Sure, it’s not always easy to keep the rational brain focused, but just being aware of this information will likely inspire you to view your decision-making process a little bit differently. Next time you find yourself at a crossroads, ask which brain is in charge. If your rational brain is busy doing something else, grab its attention and get it involved.