TED Conversations

Pabitra Mukhopadhyay


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What leads us to decide?

We need to take decisions in life almost every day. In work or outside of it, life takes us on crossroads where decisions are necessary, without which we cannot move on. It is in these situations we take decisions and we believe that the decisions are independently taken, weighing pros and cons and utilizing our best judgments.

That may not be the case. Our decisions may not be as individualistic as we normally think. Our judgments may not be the best under the circumstances. We are often influenced by authority that comes from an expert or an institution or even a belief system but all of which, either solely or in combination are relied on as of authority. Yale University Psychologist Stanley Milgram, in 1963 published his research paper which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. They went on to impart lethal doses of electricity (as they believed to do) to some other participants just because they were deciding under authority. There are interesting videos available in Youtube which you can check.

We can project this authority beyond science. Religion is one. Market in another. Media is yet another. From small to profound we rely on authority almost obsessively for making decisions and yet think that our decisions are free and independent. If we need a reference for making decision, we should be seeking help from authenticity and not authority and they are different. Authority is beyond question, it regulates where as authenticity is free to be tested and it creates trust.

What leads us to decide – authority or authenticity?


Closing Statement from Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

It seems that we take help of both authority and authenticity to decide things. It may not even be an either/or choice as the question seeks to see decision making as. At times we can find authority and authenticity merging and at other times, at the very fringes of human choice the decision making may be so spontaneous that our sub-conscious plays a vital role. Moreover, our decision making process works over a range of our faculty, our brain conserves resources/neuronic energy while decision making.

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    Apr 11 2013: Great Question.

    I initially think about this from a neurological perspective. We now know exactly which parts of the frontal lobe of the brain are responsible for specific kinds of decision making. We know this based on decades of brain scans of patients with brain injuries. For example, one part of the front lobe is required for controlling your urges (I am deciding not to have that chocolate bar), and another part of the frontal lobe is required for decisions where a reward is involved. Some decisions involve several of these brain centers at once. As all humans have these decision making parts of the brain in the same place, I suspect there is partially a genetic element to the design of our brain which creates these decision making centers.

    As we constantly physically rewire our brain in response to our own thinking and experiences, these pre-wired decision making centers of the frontal lobe interact with other parts of our thinking that are of our own creation.

    The amygdala functions as an instant decision making system, making instant fight or flight decisions without taking the time to decide, "Gee, should I run from this lion?" In patients with PTSD, this can override the decisions they would like to consciously make.

    Another observation I have about decision making, is that the reasons we actually make a decision may be quite different from the reasons we think we made that decision. Sometimes I think we make up our justification for our decision after the fact, perhaps to resolve cognitive dissonance.

    I think it's fascinating to consider the decision making process of a person "trying" (unsuccessfully) to quit smoking cigarettes. I've asked a number of ex-smokers what caused them to finally quit, and there does seem to be this "aha" moment where they finally make the conscious decision to quit and stay quit.

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