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Decisions are a part of every moment of every day. Our lives are majorly shaped by their quality. Yet, despite the massive significance of our choices and the stress we experience around them, we spend precious little time understanding how we make choices and, more importantly, how to make better choices. Luckily, research in psychology and neuroscience has shed light on powerful tools that all of us can use to this end. Here are three of the major takeaways.
1. Your decision-making is influenced by your environment and biology.
And you can harness this for the better. At the end of the day, our decisions are a reflection of our brain wiring and function. Research has shown that certain parts of the brain are especially involved in decision-making, and when they are damaged or otherwise compromised, the quality of our decision-making suffers. It’s notable that in people with brain dysfunction or damage, poor decisions are a common finding. This is all the more reason to take steps to prevent conditions like Alzheimer’s that may lead people to make less healthy choices.
Taking a step back, however, it’s critical to understand that our moment-to-moment decisions are biased by what’s happening in the world around us and the biology of our brains. For example, experiencing high levels of stress appears to increase our preference for more impulsive choices, and sleep deficits (as well as stress) increase our reliance on habitual, unconscious choices instead of well-thought-out decisions.
These types of understandings help fuel a few key strategies for improving daily decision-making, which include: prioritizing sleep (sleep-deprived people tend to make less healthy choices), getting in a daily dose of movement (people may make healthier decisions after a round of exercise), and engaging in daily stress-mitigation techniques (like meditation or breathing exercises). There’s also interesting data suggesting that even a short burst of exposure to nature may decrease impulsive choices.
2. Over 40 percent of our actions may be unconscious.
And we can program these choices for our betterment. One of the most important data points when it comes to decision-making is that over 40 percent of our daily actions may be automatic, unconscious behaviors called habits. Habits are programmed when we do the same behaviors time and time again. They are behaviors that can occur almost on autopilot (like brushing your teeth, driving home from work, or picking up your phone to open Instagram when you’re in the bathroom). If someone asked you what you were doing, you’d know, but you wouldn’t have much of (or any) memory of why you were doing it or having made a choice to perform the behavior.
In the modern-day, allowing our habitual behaviors to be programmed by our environments is a risky move. That’s because habits are built when we do something easy and rewarding, and most activities that hit those marks are unhealthy (eg, getting fast food on the way home from work, watching TV for hours after dinner, scrolling on social media in bed after we wake up).
The good news is that we can overwrite unhealthy habits with healthier ones. This does require that we go through specific steps that teach our brains how to program healthier habits. For starters, try to identify a few unhealthy habits in your life and see whether you can recognize any specific cue that leads you to engage in those behaviors.
3. Your psychological vulnerabilities are being hacked.
Our brains and choices are being influenced every day from a million different directions. However, some of the most powerful influences on our choices come from people making use of a few psychological hacks. When we overlook these, it’s often our decision-making that suffers, and later, our physical and financial health.
Because our brains have to process an absolutely massive amount of information each day, they rely on psychological shortcuts. For example, many of us rely on the “wisdom of the crowd” by following the behaviors of others. This could work out well if the people we followed were making choices that made sense for us. But all too often now, we are falling victim to marketers leveraging this against us. Take, for example, a few well-placed five-star reviews or a well-known health expert advocating for some junk food that you would have never considered otherwise.
Another example of this is the scarcity bias, which describes our increased desire to have something if it’s rare or otherwise hard to find. This explains our impulsive buys during “Today only!” sales, countdown clocks on website checkout pages, or marketing ploys that artificially create limits for how many of an item we can buy. There are an endless number of these psychological shortcuts, but knowing just a few of them can be very helpful in allowing you to see when similar plays are being made for your brain.