Metacognition: Is how you decide more valuable than what you decide?

This is how we usually make decisions...

This is how we usually make decisions…

Metacognition is the process of thinking about thinking. It’s what is all about. And you can’t think about the way we think without turning your attention to practical, applied thinking sooner or later, which (of course) means thinking about decision making. Making better decisions dominates much of the writing about the topic, but actually, it’s a bit of a red herring. Developing a better decision making process is much more valuable. It’s sounds like the same thing, but it’s not.

In this essay, let’s get a handle on that most useful of brain functions and try to tune it up a bit with a little lateral thinking… and a thinking tool called the “TV Room Tool”

What is a decision anyway?

You can reach for complex, detailed explanations and exploration of what category of thing decision making actually is, but simply put, making decisions is pretty much the defining characteristic of all things with brains. Perhaps not conscious decisions, or big weigh-up-the-evidence decisions, but even the most basic decisions like stuffing things into your mouth when you’re hungry denote a decision making brain. Which means, as the brain is the organ through which you experience reality, decisions are basically the defining characteristic of life, of the self. It is, quite literally, the activity through which you define reality, time and everything in between. It’s as vital (and a hell of a lot more interesting) as breathing.

What is decision making?

Decision making is the conscious, rational side of your brain’s ability to process information. Your brain is constantly processing, even when you’re asleep (dreams). Most of this processing is unconscious – taking data from your sensory inputs (eyes, ears, nose, skin, organs, blood chemistry, neurochemistry etc) and reacting automatically to it. All that processing equates to hundreds of thousands of reactions every day. Only a very small amount of that activity is actually considered to be decision making, which starts with recognising an external situation that requires a choice, undergoes a period (usually about 10 minutes or so) of conscious judgement and ends in a choice of some sort.

Decisions overrule your unconscious reactions… or do they? Well, the answer is yes and no. Yes, your brain can decide you need a pee, but you can overrule it and hold on until your meeting is over. You might be hungry, or thirsty, horny or angry, but in most cases that whole gamut of human emotional and physical experience can be overruled by the decision making processes we refer to as “self control”. There’s no doubt decision making, reason, moderates our animal urges – although discredited, this idea was first described in detail by Freud’s mechanical concept of your psyche, suggesting an internal conflict between primitive animal you (the Id) the selfish, purposeful you (the Ego) and it’s rational, co-operative you who makes you function within a social setting (the Super Ego).

Current theories suggest there is less of a discrete Freudian split (excuse the pun) inside most of our heads and is rather more of an analogue between the unconscious mind and the rational mind. Some decisions are very conscious, rational choices and others are very unconscious, irrational choices. Like the difference between solving a maths problem (very rational & conscious) and suddenly choosing to mash down a doughnut (very unconscious). Somewhere in between we make choices in a grey area between the two, like deciding you don’t like someone you’ve only just met for the first time because of their clothes (unconsciously influenced but superficially rational choice) or opting to mash down a low fat snack bar when you’re craving a doughnut because you know all that deep fried carbohydrate is bad for you (rational moderating of an unconscious desire).

Decision making: The grey area for grey matter

It’s a sliding scale, but very rarely in our daily decision making do we make a choice that is purely rational or unconscious, we tend to lean one way or the other between cold logic and hot blooded instinct, which is where we get the idea of unconscious bias – our natural tendency to allow stuff that comes from our unconscious minds to influence our rational choices. You’re not a computer, you’re a person.

We make a lot of decisions in this grey area. The numbers reported in research papers vary wildly from about 25 to as many as 200, every day. If you discount all the ones you’ll make today like deciding what to eat for lunch, or when to leave the house to arrive at work on time (the functional stuff) it’s most likely at the lower end of that range. In fact, in terms of making important decisions, it’s probably a lot less than that – maybe only 2 or 3 per day.

It’s also important to remember that not all important decisions appear to be decisions at all, for example: hearing a news story and forming an opinion about it is a decision, a judgement, and although it might be a fire and forget scenario where you decide “that’s good / bad” and then apparently forget about it, that opinion can play an important role in choices you’ll make down the line.

Scientists aren’t sure how many information sources (mostly memories) our brains consider when they make decisions or predictions, but one thing we do know is once you’ve made a decision about something, you are more likely to re-use that little chunk of data than delete it.

To put it another way, it’s hard to admit you’re wrong and change your opinion. That’s the essence of persistent bias. It’s what makes people, and their behaviour predictable. For example, the first time I met my in-laws, I was wearing a pair of dungarees covered in political slogan badges and comic book heroes. They took one look at me and thought I was a scruffy student, and from reading my badges, was anti-establishment. They weren’t impressed. Before I’d uttered a word, they had an opinion about me – not just my political outlook or sartorial sense (or lack of it), but an opinion of what the person inside was like. I didn’t judge them the same way, but I did have my own preconceptions – they were parents, and as such, would probably not approve of my politics student outlook on life because the older generation weren’t down with da kids.

They grew to like me, eventually, but found it hard to be objective about me. It took a few years before they changed their opinion of who I was which was formed right at the beginning based on how I looked and the things I thought (not about them, but about life in general) before they actually knew me at all. As they made new memories of what I was actually like, eventually those memories overwhelmed their preconceptions.

However, if another dungaree wearing left-wing comic book geek turned-up at their door, they would probably access the same data that made them view me a certain way and use it again to form an opinion about the new guy. Everyone does this, we compress our decision making into snap judgements because we decide in the present, in the moment, and we know we can always revise our opinions as time passes.

We all have this tendency to reuse past opinions. Another example is the fact I always park on the top floor of a multi story car park, regardless of the weather, on the basis that the top floor usually has the most empty spaces. In both cases, it’s a decision but it’s not really a rational choice, it’s a habit.

How different choices but similar results? Community and environmental influences over choices

So what? Okay… here’s where it gets interesting.

Regardless of the events that happen after you have made a decision, the important part is making the decision. Making a good one or a bad one is, in the scheme of things pretty irrelevant unless it’s genuinely a life and death decision or perhaps, a really stupid one like taking a pee over an electrified train track. Apart from those extremely rare moments when a choice could kill you, if you look back over decisions that seemed incredibly important and difficult to make at the time, a strange thing happens. As more time passes, when you consider the how your present day would be different if you had chosen differently, the chances are you would still be more or less in the same place you ended-up anyway.

Admittedly, you might have a different job, but probably a similar type of employment. Investment bankers are never one fork in the decision making road away from being a butcher, for example. You might be living with different people, but most likely to be the same demographic category of people, e.g. If you’re living in the suburbs with a spouse and kids, it’s unlikely you are just a couple of choices away from being a polygamous circus performer living in a caravan. You might enjoy different hobbies, but you’d still favour certain genres of pastime over others, you won’t suddenly turn from being a keen gardener to a sky diver because of a simple choice or two. You might hold a different degree, but a similar kind of higher education outcome, you won’t have made choices that steered you from a BA in marketing to hold a PhD in advanced subatomic physics, and so on.

If you think that’s pure conjecture, or guesswork, it’s not. It’s science. Conjecture is the faintly ludicrous notion that we tell our children that they could be anything they want to be. No they can’t. They’ll be anything they choose to be, but their choices aren’t a limitless scope of possibilities at all, they’re fixed into a certain range of opportunities that are shaped by the world around them.

To illustrate the point, imagine telling a young Etonian that he could be a sewing machine operator in a sweat shop, or a starving refugee that she could be a neurosurgeon. It’s theoretically possible, but would require them to make choices that are, in both cases, beyond the scope of their cultural and environmental influences. It’s almost impossible for the privileged or deprived to work out how to choose a path outside the limits imposed by community and economic circumstances that shape their desires and expectations of life. They’re on a journey along different paths before they even know they have a choice to choose their own path.

How to make a better decision.

Make no mistake, this isn’t leading up to some cosmic bullshit about fate or destiny or whatever. Quite the reverse. This story is all about making better decisions, but not by, ironically, traditional decision making processes. It’s a rallying call for spending a little more time on understanding your brain. You see, all the things you are, right now, aren’t simply the result of conscious decision making processes, they’re also the result of unconscious thought processes. Or to put it another way, the decisions you make without even knowing you’re making them.

Your unconscious mind has a huge affect on your conscious, rational decision making. In fact, you could say that it can trick you into making totally irrational choices which most people then invent perfectly logical (but nevertheless phoney) rational explanations for.

For example, recent research from the PNAS shows that people are about 30% more likely to die in a Hurricane with a female name than a male one, because, unconsciously they decide that a feminine titled hurricane is somehow going to be milder than a male titled one. (See my essay on that story here). It doesn’t matter if people conjure perfectly reasonable explanations for why they’ve decided to stay at home for Hurricane Emily rather than leave home for Hurricane Victor, ultimately, they’ve fallen victim to bad decision making, which in a number of cases, will turn out to be a very, *very* bad decision.

So knowing your brain doesn’t always have your best interests at heart is important if you want to get better at making decisions. It doesn’t matter if you’re a right brain dominant creative or a number crunching left-brainer, you can’t affect the impact of cognitive bias unless you make a conscious effort to do it. Which probably explains why so many innovative start-ups fail and (as this study shows) so many scientists edit experimental data to present a skewed result.

The multi-billion dollar big data market suggests data can help you make better decisions, but it doesn’t matter how much data you’ve got, because data is intrinsically backwards looking and has no value until you do something with it. Data turns into information when it’s combined with decision making, which means information can be very good at explaining the past, and sometimes quite good at predicting the future. But none of that is decision making, it’s analogous to intellectual furniture.

Which leads to this simple thinking tool, the “TV Room Tool” to help you get a handle on your own decision making process.

The “TV Room Tool”

Getting a handle on your own decision making process has to start with a way for you to visualise what’s happening in your head when you make a decision. This will help you – it’s a simple idea that shows where your unconscious bias lives, and how it operates. Consider the following scenario and relate it to your own experience of life…

  1. All your data, information sources, memories and environmental influences (your cultural background, life experiences, aspirations, lifestyle etc.) are the furniture in the room where you watch TV.
  2. Sitting on the furniture and deciding what to watch the telly is decision making.
  3. Your reaction to the shows you watch is akin to how you experience the outcomes of our decisions.
  4. If you’ve got a good decision making process or a faulty one is easy to work out. Are you feeling entertained, stimulated, watching intently, can’t wait for the next episode, or are you just watching any old crap out of habit?
  5. The answer is probably both. Sometimes you turn on the TV and flick through the channels to fill time. Sometimes, you really want to see something. You might even record it, and watch it back more than once.
  6. In both cases, you might miss something you would have really liked, or spend time watching something you decide isn’t worth the time, after you’ve seen it.
  7. You don’t have enough information to always turn it on and make the right choice, shows that look good are often disappointing, and shows you happen across out of boredom and channel hopping can become firm favourites. You realise the most important thing, is the process (and habit) of watching TV.
  8. Which means, when we go back to decision making, the most important thing is making decisions, not making good decisions.


the Meta-cognitive view of decision making

The outcomes of decisions, like TV shows, enjoy a brief moment in reality before they slip into the past and form memories, which are remarkable things that can be changed from good to bad, become more important or be erased completely by the process of making new memories. Happy wedding memories change after a messy divorce, for example. A pic of a great night down the pub becomes a tragic reminder of loss when one of the smiling faces in the photo dies in a car crash. The usefulness of the memories we form, of the outcomes we’ve experienced, is short lived and contrary to what you might think, usually don’t change your habits, in the same way you’ll watch the same old crap on the telly for years rather than turn it off and read a book or crochet something (or whatever). That habitual quality to decision making is the basic nature of unconscious bias.

However, if you can develop a toolkit for testing your decision making, thinking tools to help you reduce the effect of normal, natural unconscious bias, you can make better decisions. It may not change your life overnight, but nothing you choose ever really does that. I’m writing this on a Monday, which means most I have probably only made about 10 conscious decisions today (and possibly only one or two important ones) which have made no difference whatsoever to the big picture of my career, love life, health or whatever.

However the cumulative effect of making 365, 730 or even 1460 (maybe even more) important decisions over the next year could be huge. You can’t argue with the statistical relevance of that.

So it’s worth making an effort to test your decision making using thinking tools that are designed to test my unconscious influences. I’ve written a book about five tools like that (designed to make better business decisions – called Screwproof), published other ones here on this blog (seeking out gender bias & helping you reduce the influence of bullshit in advertising) and I’m always developing more. The aim is simple, you can wrestle your conscience over whether you have done the right thing, you can flip-flop over whether you bought the right car, or chose the right haircut, and never really know if you were right without travelling back in time, choosing differently an then comparing between two possible lives. Which is impossible. But if you can be more confident that you chose rationally, because your decision making process was better, you can rest assured you’ve got the best outcome.

It’s the thinking equivalent of looking in the TV guide for things you want to see, rather than flicking through the channels until you find something worth watching and miss a show that you really wanted to see because it hadn’t started when you were flicking.

You can’t argue with the logic of that.