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How Mentally Strong People Make Wise Decisions

How Mentally Strong People Make Wise Decisions

On a sunny day in early August, my wife Agnes Vishnevkin and I came to a Rationality Dojo in Columbus, OH. Run by Max Harms, this group is devoted to growing mentally stronger through mental fitness practices. That day, the dojo’s activities focused on probabilistic thinking, a practice of assigning probabilities to our intuitive predictions about the world to improve our ability to evaluate reality accurately, and make wise decisions to reach our goals. After learning the principles of probabilistic thinking, we discussed how to apply this strategy to everyday life.

We were so grateful for this practice in early September, when my wife and I started shopping for our new house. We discussed in advance the specific goals we had for the house, enabling us to save a lot of time by narrowing our options. We then spent one day visiting a number of places we liked, rating each aspect of the house important to us on a numerical scale. After visiting all these places, we sat down and discussed the probabilities on what house would best meet our goals. The math made it much easier to overcome our individual aesthetic preferences, and focus on what would make us happiest in the long run. We settled on our top choice, made a bid, and signed our contract.
This sounds like a dry and not very exciting process. Well, we were very excited!

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Why? Because we were confident that we made the best decision with the information available to us. The decision to get a new house is one of the biggest financial decisions we will make in our lifetime. It felt great to know that we could not have done any better than we did through applying the principles of probabilistic thinking and other rationality-informed strategies. Of course, we could still be wrong, there are no guarantees in life. Yet we know we did the best we could – we grew less wrong.

These strategies are vital for improving our thinking because our brains are inherently irrational. Research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, and other fields from the middle of the twentieth century has discovered hundreds of thinking errors, called cognitive biases. These thinking errors cause us to make flawed decisions – in finances, relationships, health and well-being, politics, etc.

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Recently, popular books by scholars such as Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, Chip and Dan Heath, and other scholars have brought these problems from the halls of academia to the attention of the broad public. However, these books have not focused on how we can address these problems in everyday life.

So far, the main genre dedicated to popularizing strategies to improve our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns has been in the field of self-improvement. Unfortunately, self-improvement is rarely informed by science, and instead relies on personal experience and inspiring stories. While such self-improvement activities certainly help many, it is hard to tell whether the impact comes from the actual effectiveness of the specific activities or a placebo effect due to people being inspired to work on improving themselves.

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However, research in the last decade, from Keith Stanovich, Hal Arkes, and others revealed that we can fix our thinking, sometimes with a single training. For example, my own research and writing shows how people can learn to reach their long-term goals and find their life meaning and purpose using science-based strategies. This scientific approach does not guarantee the right decision, but it is the best method we currently have, and will improve in the future with more research.

Yet a budding movement called Rationality has been going through the complex academic materials and adapting them to everyday life, as exemplified by Rationality Dojo. This small movement has relatively few public outlets. The website LessWrong is dedicated to high-level discussions of strategies to improve thinking patterns and ClearerThinking offers some online courses on improving decision making. The Center for Applied Rationality offers intense in-person workshops for entrepreneurs and founders.

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For example, if I want to exercise more, I would take a rational approach to it. Rather than just a vague resolution, I would outline my specific goals for exercising, such as decreasing my weight by 20 percent. I would then evaluate the various exercises to see which ones targeted weight loss, and commit to one. I would then set up mechanisms to motivate me, such as publicly announcing my intentions, creating a social commitment to go with a friend, tracking the times I go, and rewarding myself for each successful visit.

As another example, say I wanted to become a more moral person and do more good in the world. I would evaluate specific steps to do so, such as giving more to charity. After making that determination, I would set aside a specific sum of money per year to give to charity, for instance 10 percent of my income. Next, I would research what are the charities that do the most good for my dollar in a cause area I am most passionate about, such as education. For the last step, I would choose a charity that I see as doing the most good and donate that money.

All of these steps are informed by specific research-based strategies for making and implementing decisions rationally to maximize the possibility of achieving our goals. You do not have to be nudged by policy makers and CEOs. Instead, you can be intentional and use rationality to make the best decisions for your own goals! Consider how much you can benefit from adopting similar strategies, and share this article with others so that they can benefit as well: they will be grateful to you.

Featured photo credit: Decisions via flickr.com

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

President and Co-Founder at Intentional Insights; Disaster Avoidance Consultant

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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