In the Straits Times last Saturday (24 Jan 2015) there were two separate articles about poor decisions – one was about an Australian lady who was caught in Malaysia for trafficking 1.5kg of Ice. She was duped in an online romance scam. The other was about a group of Singaporeans who apparently lost $7million in a gold-trading scam. Both of these unrelated incidents have one thing in common - the emotional override to an irrational premise. In this article, I shall discuss how, despite ourselves, we get duped by our emotions and the ever-increasing need to be critical in our decisions.
The neuroscience of decisions
Neuroscientists have uncovered how the brain makes a decision. Most of you will probably know about the triune brain – the brain being made up of three parts: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain and the primate brain. These are so-called due to the evolutionary time that such a brain has developed.
The reptilian brain is the oldest part of our brain and it controls the workings of the body unconsciously. Keeping your heart beating, ensuring breathing, and the regulatory functions of the kidney and liver are all controlled by the reptilian brain. Since this has no impact on decision-making, I shall not make any more mention of it in this article.
The mammalian brain is the second part to be evolved over time, and it controls our emotional responses. It also controls the secretion of hormones to effect action. So if we saw a purse that we liked, it would cause our pupils to dilate, so that it can take in more information. If we saw a charging elephant, it would direct us to run out of the way! Such activities are also unconscious and that can be the cause of much decision-making pain, as we shall uncover later.
The third part of our brain is called the primate brain. This is the latest part of our brain to be evolved and is the seat of higher-order thinking. All information is processed here for further action. This is where reflection is conducted, where your mathematical and scientific skills are developed and where you draw on information to make a conclusion. This is the sense-making part of our brain.
When a sensory input is triggered, the information is first sent to the mammalian brain to react to it. A split second later, that same information is sent to the primate brain to make sense of it and to countermand the orders of the mammalian brain, if necessary. So, if we saw the bag that we liked, but finally realized that it was a Prada knock-off, it would send a signal to the adrenal glands to stop the adrenaline production. That is when our pupils will close, and we lose interest.
When emotions hijack our decisions
You will notice that since the mammalian brain has primacy of effect, it can sometimes hijack the thinking process as a whole. It can short out the primate brain’s countermands by focusing on the elements that keep the emotions high, and the adrenaline pumping. That is why we sometimes see people in love doing stupid things – like flying from Australia to Shanghai to meet with a lover whom she only knows online. Or the prospect of making fast money in “investing” in gold. Love and greed – these are the two rawest emotions that tend to resist the primate brain. These can hijack the whole thinking process and cause people to make blatant fools of themselves. And their response to people around them who question their decision? – “You don’t know me.” And that is true, because one person’s reaction to such stimulus is totally different from someone else’s. And that is why scams usually target the emotionally charged people – those who don’t see a way out of an economic situation, or those who cannot get past primal feelings.
So what should we do?
Here are 6 things you should remember when faced with an emotionally-charged situation:
1. Never react to any "opportunity" on the spot
2. Think rationally, asking yourself what's in it for you, and also, for them
3. Also ask, "Why me?"
4. Have the courage to walk away - especially if it doesn't add up
5. Get other people's points of view, and go with the majority
6. Remember, "If it's too good to be true, it usually is."