Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on July 8, 2020.
Writing for Vox, Robert Pearl, a physician and former CEO of Kaiser's Permanente Medical Group, explains what leads people to make "regrettable" decisions—and how we can make better ones.
Pearl currently serves as a clinical professor of plastic surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine and is on the faculty of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
The science behind bad decisions
According to Pearl, it's common for people to dismiss others' reckless decisions, and think we wouldn't do that ourselves. "But science tells us that we would, far more often than we’d like to believe," Pearl writes.
To figure out why smart people make "foolish" decisions, Pearl collaborated with George York, a neurologist with the University of California Davis, to sift through years of psychological literature and brain-scanning studies on the topic. The duo compared the scientific findings with first-hand accounts of people "doing remarkably irrational things" in politics, relationships, and everyday life.
Blame the 'brainshift'
Pearl and York's research revealed that "[u]nder the right circumstances, a subconscious neurobiological sequence in our brains causes us to perceive the world around us in ways that contradict objective reality, distorting what we see and hear," Pearl writes. "This powerful shift in perception is unrelated to our intelligence, morals, or past behaviors. In fact, we don't even know it's happening, nor can we control it."
Pearl and York said the phenomenon, which they named "brainshift," occurs in two contexts: situations involving high anxiety or a major reward.
According to Pearl, under these circumstances, any of us are capable of making "foolish" decisions. "[O]nce our perception is distorted, we act in ways that seem reasonable to us but foolish to observers," he writes.
The phenomenon, Pearl writes, "is best observed," in a 2005 study by Gregory Berns, a neuro-economist.
For the study, Berns directed five participants to look at 3-D shapes and guess whether the figures would match when rotated in a certain direction. However, unbeknown to the fifth participant, four of the five participants were actually part of Berns' research team. The four actors were instructed to blurt out incorrect answers to determine if the one participant would be influenced by the majority.
The study found that only 30% of the subjects answered correctly every time.
MRI scans showed differences in brain activity between people who answered correctly and people who didn't. When study participant did not conform to the response shouted by the research staff, MRI scans showed activity in the participant's amygdala, which is associated with fear and apprehension.
However, when the participant was influenced by the responses from Berns' research team, the MRI showed activity in the parietal lobe, which is responsible for our perceptions. That suggests, Pearl writes, that the research team's answers caused the subjects' brains to alter what they saw.
Further, only 3.4% of subjects said they went along with the group despite having known the correct answer, demonstrating that the shift in perception was largely a subconscious response, Pearl writes.
High anxiety and high reward
In an earlier study, in 1973, researchers demonstrated how our decision-making can change when we are in high-stress situations.
For the study, researchers John Darley and Daniel Batson told a group of students to deliver a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan to a group of children across campus.
The researchers told some of the students, "It'll be a few minutes before they're ready for you, but you might as well head on over." The researchers told others "You're late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. You'd better get moving."
When the students walked across campus, they came across a man who was moaning in pain and coughing in a doorway, but the results show that only 10% of the students who believed they were late stopped to help.
"The best explanation for this behavior is that, amid the anxiety of running late, most of the students experienced a perceptual shift that caused them not to see the man or recognize his distress," Pearl writes. "Otherwise, logically, all would have stopped to help."
How to stop making foolish decisions
So how can we stop making bad decisions? It's not easy, Pearl writes.
He explained that as humans, we tend to stand by our decisions, even the illogical ones, because of a phenomenon called anchoring. "That is, we filter out dissenting information while seeking data that confirms our original viewpoints," Pearl writes.
Although we have two subconscious phenomenon's working against us Pearl notes that there are a few steps we can take to avoid having to face long-lasting negative consequences due to our subconscious:
- Acknowledge "we are all vulnerable" to making bad decisions, "regardless of our ethics, social status, or IQ," Pearl writes;
- Identify situations that tend to "stoke [y]our fears and desires";
- If time allows, ask a friend, outsider, or expert for their opinion before making a decision; and
- Consider the "worst thing that could happen," and how you would feel if it occurred