One of the primary responsibilities of a leader is to make good decisions. It’s actually one of the main responsibilities of anyone of adult age (even though my 5 year old thinks he gets to make ALL the decisions.) It also happens to be one of the four main pillars of the field of neuroleadership.
I would venture that you like to feel reasonably assured–if not flat-out confident–in the soundness of your decisions. So would it surprise you to know that your brain, in a way, is conspiring against you?!
Part of our evolution as a species involves the need to make things efficient. You see this in nature as well. Animals conserve energy and spend it wisely. Our brain likes to do the same thing. Using our prefrontal cortex (or PFC, the most recent part of the human brain to evolve) to temporarily store information, process information, or make decisions is effortful and energy intensive. You might say it’s a bit painful to the brain. A good example of this is when you physically sit still for a few hours focusing on a project and end up tired when you finish. Your brain has been burning fuel the whole time, similar to the way your muscles burn blood glucose energy when they are being used. Our PFC also works best when focusing on one thing at a time in a serial or linear way (think single-tasking).
Another part of the brain that works in nearly the opposite way than your PFC is your nonconscious (some folks may call this your unconscious). The nonconscious involves long-term implicit procedural memory, can run many processes at the same time (in parallel, think multi-tasking) and is very efficient compared to the PFC (or conscious brain). Many of the things we learned to do as children–crawl, walk, eat, talk–were extremely effortful at first with lots of trial and error, got easier as we “got the hang” of it, and became hardwired over time to the point where we don’t even give these things conscious thought. For instance, when was the last time you had to think about how to walk? Or brush your teeth? Or drive a car? These are all things that we can do “on autopilot” while we daydream or focus our conscious attention to other things around us.
Not only do we hardwire these habitual ways of doing and being, there are shortcuts the brain likes to take when dealing with life’s complexities. Our brain is continually comparing what is going on right now with what we have experienced in the past in order to make quick judgments or decisions about whether and how to best proceed. You could think of these shortcuts as heuristics. You might even call them biases.
There are dozens of biases informing our daily lives. Matt Lieberman estimated over 150 cognitive biases shaping our behavior. The dangerous thing about many of these biases is they can act without our awareness, they are hidden (or implicit–there’s that word again).
What does this have to do with our decision-making ability?
These hidden biases color how we perceive situations and, accordingly, influence the decisions we make about them. Although we’d like to believe we are making sound decisions, we may not be using the best thinking when doing so. Our brain expands less effort and feels good about “being right” but we are, to a degree, kidding ourselves.
One of the really surprising issues the research shows about hidden bias is that we all agree it is an issue, but we tend to think it’s more of an issue for everyone else.
What’s a human to do?
First–realize that our brain has been developing over centuries and its need to simplify things and conserve energy are not likely to go away. It is going to want to take shortcuts. Biases exist and will persist.
Second–accept that we cannot eliminate these biases. We live in an overstimulating world with tons of messages hitting our nonconscious brain, creating implicit biases and shaping our perception.
Third–determine which biases might be at play in different situations. Knowing what you’re dealing with is empowering.
Fourth–create processes to help “take the bias out” of the situation. In a way, we are substituting an external process for our brain’s automatic internal processing. This can help improve your decision-making.
A few articles on the nonconscious brain and hidden biases:
Image: © 2001 Royalty-Free/Corbis