If I throw a punch at you, your brain responds by presenting you with three choices: duck, block or run away. While seemingly all of these are of equal value when it comes to solving the problem of “how should I deal with an incoming punch”, in reality they are not.
The punch I threw at you takes place in the frame of context-driven human interactions and each of the choices you are faced with comes preloaded with a different scenario of “what happens next”. Because the brain is a prediction machine it’s ability to accurately project the reality that will emerge from each possible choice, is a key determinant of the quality of your decision making.
Ideally, you’d need time to decide whether, for example, I’d be willing to continue throwing punches at you, after you block, which would result in a proper fight between us. That calculus alone requires an appraisal of my fighting skills, your own, the place we’re at. The clothes we each wear. Our difference in physical attributes. Whether each of us can access a weapon if we need to and the reason why all this is happening. And these calculations have to take place as you weigh just the first choice available to you.
In the fast-moving scenario where your decision has to be made before my punch hits you in the face time is a luxury you don’t have. So, you need to make up your mind fast. Fast decision-making however risks making the wrong decision. What if you decide to block and fight and I am better than you at fighting? What if you duck just in time for my knee to hit you in the face? What if you run away and be branded a coward when you could have taken me all along?
The accumulated ‘what ifs’ are probabilities that are separated in internal probabilities (the assessment you made that you are a better fighter than me) and external ones (when you decided that my lighter built is a disadvantage for me in this fight). Being able to consistently make good decisions requires us to make accurate projections of the outcome of our choices and their consequences. Yet the trade-off between speed and accuracy in our decision-making is inevitable and, according to countless studies in the animal kingdom, inescapable.
What is not inescapable is whether we always choose speed of reaction over accuracy of assessment of the choices available to us. A new study of the motor system neurons shows that it’s possible to willingly regulate how we react so we are not always trapped by the moment. The reason the motor system neurons were studied is because every decision leads to some kind of action. Actions that require movement activate specific muscle groups and the motor neuron system of that muscle group can be studied.
The Whole Body Decides What The Mind Tells Us To Do
As expected, the study showed that when a decision is made to move one’s hands, the neurons that control the movement are activated and their state of readiness is amplified long before the move is made. But what is surprising and of particular interest is that the neurons of the legs are also excited and their state of readiness amplified even though they don’t take part in the movement.
This means that the urge to act, either quickly or cautiously (and therefore a little more slowly) happens across the entire network of sensory motor neurons and not just the ones likely to be recruited when the action that is decided upon has to take place. As the study authors write:
In “drift-diffusion models,” deliberation between actions involves an accumulation of evidence, which drives the buildup of neural signals coding for different actions toward a critical decision threshold in the motor system, and once one of them reaches this threshold, the related action is chosen and executed.
“Evidence” is what we need when we make deliberate, cautious decisions and a sense of threat is what drives our more impetuous, fast, decision-making. The research showed that when acting quickly specific neurons of the motor sensory neuron network are activated long before action is required and, interestingly, other types of neurons are quietened in order to not detract from the action that’s about to occur.
This is the first time that neuroscience demonstrates why preparation and the right mindset are key to performance. There are a lot of complexities here to unravel so I will unpack this in the easiest way possible. In both The Sniper Mind, where I explored the building blocks of decision making under pressure, and Intentional, where I look at what makes us behave in particular ways, I mention the importance of planning and refer to the example of Cooper’s color code.
Jeff Cooper was a US Marine who created the modern handgun grip and stance. During his time in active service he witnessed, first hand that those who survived life-or-death encounters weren’t the ones who were best equipped or best trained but the ones who were best prepared with the correct mindset. This led him to create his color code as a means of assessing the environment we are in and preparing our minds according to the level of threat we expect.
Preparation Changes How The Brain And Body Respond
Neuroscience shows that the reason preparation plays such a critical role in survival in dangerous situations and success in life and business, lies in the way the brain prepares to apportion resources that guide both physical and mental processes.
We know this from studies on athletes where performance outcomes improve if the preparation and warm-up are goal-orientated (i.e. involve muscle movements that engage the same muscle groups that are activated during the performance of a particular movement in a competitive environment). Warming up the same muscles through more generic exercises did not deliver the same results.
Similarly, through other studies we see that the ability to regulate our responses, have greater control of our self and not overreact improves when we engage in action-specific and goal-specific preparation. Regulating our response is necessary so we can preserve our resources. We can then allocate exactly the right amount of energy needed when we have to in order to achieve the outcome we seek. Regulating our response also allows us to retain a sense of control in scenarios where we have no control over the external world. The sense of control we achieve reduces our sense of anxiety. The neurochemical states that reflect a calmer reaction allow the higher centers of our mind to kick in and our cognitive capabilities change.
The Components Of A Better Decision-Making System
Without a doubt there are times when we all have no choice but to make a fast decision, trading off accuracy of prediction and quality of outcome, for speed of action. Overall though, our ability to control the impulsiveness we feel is what allows us to consistently make better choices and decisions. An accumulation of good decisions and great outcomes leads to what we call “success” in our life.
The key components of a good decision-making system are:
- Preparation: Being aware of our environment (situational awareness), knowing our own capabilities, articulating our goals and then using discrete, actionable steps to take us towards them. A keen awareness of the context within which everything happens is necessary in order to correctly establish priorities in order of importance to us.
- Interoception: The ability to know how we feel is the key requirement to practise emotional regulation. An awareness of our state of being, what triggers us and how to control it is not only needed for critical self-care but it’s needed in order to feel in control of who we are.
- Emotional Regulation: This is the final ingredient in the formula for good decision-making. Our motivation is rooted in emotions. Emotions manifest into action but between what we feel and what we do lies a sense of who we are and what we want to accomplish. If our attention is focused on projecting an image that is at odds with our beliefs and not a true reflection of who we are it is unlikely that we will have sufficient mental and psychological resources to act with restraint when we are triggered, in a pressured situation.
A lot of this is common sense. We now have science that explains why they help and how we can improve. The key takeaway is that good decision-making is a habit that needs to be worked on by the body as well as the mind. Once it is habitual decision-making speed increases even when we are contemplative and weigh everything before we decide.
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- Identification and disruption of a neural mechanism for accumulating prospective metacognitive information prior to decision-making. Kentaro Miyamoto, Nadescha Trudel, Kevin Kamermans, Lennart Verhagen, Marco K. Wittmann, Matthew F.S. Rushworth, March 16, 2021. - Download PDF
- Hasty sensorimotor decisions rely on an overlap of broad and selective changes in motor activity. Derosiere G, Thura D, Cisek P, Duque J (2022) Hasty sensorimotor decisions rely on an overlap of broad and selective changes in motor activity. PLOS Biology 20(4): e3001598. - Download PDF
- Goal-dependent tuning of muscle spindle receptors during movement preparation. STYLIANOS PAPAIOANNOU AND MICHAEL DIMITRIOU. SCIENCE ADVANCES • 24 Feb 2021 • Vol 7, Issue 9 • DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe0401 - Download PDF
- Motor Preparation for Action Inhibition: A Review of Single Pulse TMS Studies Using the Go/NoGo Paradigm. Stefania C. Ficarella and Lorella Battelli. Psychol., 21 February 2019. - Download PDF