Don't Overthink It!

La capacidad de decidir es un proceso lleno de matices que implica un equilibrio entre racionalidad, emoción y empatía. Según estas variables y, por supuesto, el contexto, el método óptimo para tomar decisiones es diferente.

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Molly Malcolm

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Is there a good and bad way to make a decision? Should it be through thinking a lot about it, or is that pointless and prevaricating, even dangerous? Should we simply rely on our emotions: our instincts or even our impulses. Bence Nanay is a Belgian philosopher. He questions the control that we think we have over the choices we make. He says that the rational mind has very little to do with it. 

Bence Nanay (Belgian accent): You get two job offers. So, one of them is in a sleepy college town, really boring, no cultural life whatsoever, but excellent philosophy department, brilliant colleagues, amazing PhD students. That’s one choice. The other choice, a job offer in one of the best cities in the world ... terrible philosophy department, huge teaching load, terrible students, terrible colleagues. How are you going to decide? So what I’d do is that I imagine myself in a situation and imagine myself in a different situation. The person who’s going to live in these scenarios is not my present self, it’s my future self – I can imagine what my future self is going to be [like]. The whole question about what’s an optimal decision is the wrong question. Who your future self is going to be is going to depend on the decision that you’re making.


In Nanay’s opinion, the decision makes the person rather than the person the decision! But are we really so easily manipulated? Scottish philosopher Barry C. Smith takes the view that you can learn to make better choices; firstly, by assessing the kind of decision it is.

Barry C. Smith (Scottish accent): Having a long time to think about it is probably part of the problem, because you’re going to do all these imaginative exercises. But I think to be a good decision-maker you actually have to have several decision-making mechanisms, and they operate at different speeds and different scales. If you’re in a situation where you have to act very fast – to save someone else’s life or maybe to take quick averting action –, you really just have to have a system [in place] that will simply take that decision for you. You actually don’t want to be imaginatively projecting; it will get in the way and it will probably slow you down. 


In Smith’s opinion, rationality can be used to develop good instincts. But what about in the case of phobias and anxieties, when powerful emotions can trick the rational mind? English philosopher Naomi Goulder says that this can cause internal conflict.

Naomi Goulder (English accent): I’m someone who is terribly fearful of spiders. And so for me even though pure rational thought would tell me I shouldn’t jump out of my seat, nonetheless, my emotion, my fear will make it appear to me to be a very good idea, and I’m going to be stuck in this conflicted situation. That’s my emotion that’s derailing my actions and getting in the way of what reason would propose. 


Strong emotions can make us look for external stimuli to match an internal feeling, causing us to overreact. Smith says, though, that in some cases a simple pause can interrupt this process. 

Barry C. Smith: It’s difficult to say what would make a good decision but we know what would make bad decisions. When [work] colleagues would come up with something particularly irritating or stupid, I would batter out a reply on email and then I learned to print it off, go and have lunch, come back and send an altogether [more] moderate reply. And what I did was, I collected these printed-off [emails] and put them in what I called my “Bastard File.” 


One example of where emotion carries us away is in globalised politics, where positions seem increasingly divisive. Nanay thinks that this is dangerous. He says that we may misinterpret our individual emotions to be collective ones, and too easily conform to group logic.

Benet Nanay: These ‘global tribes’, we could call them, these global groups. We may not live in the same place but we think that we share the same political values. And really what makes you think that you are part of this ‘left liberal tribe’ or the ‘Fox News tribe’ is something emotional, is an emotional connection to the other people in the tribe. And [yet] much of it is about my emotions, it’s not [the] emotions of a collective. 


While concern for others is at the heart of the decisions we make, this tribalism can drive us to completely dismiss the argument of the other as irrational. Smith points to intriguing new research into empathy and its role in the decision-making process. Apparently, those people who are more aware of their internal physical signals – who can guess the rate of their heartbeat accurately, for example – understand their own emotions better and can empathise more with other people.

Barry C. Smith: There are people who are very good at internally using the signal they get from their heart that’s sent to the brain. So the heart, every time it beats it sends a signal to the brain, and what’s interesting is that some people are very accurate about those changes. It doesn’t mean they’re very aware of them. Those people as it turns out are better able to recognise the emotions of others and also feel their own emotions more intensely. In some way, I think they’re more in tune with their emotions.  

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