The Decisive Moment

March 2, 2011

Yesterday I made the excellent decision to listen to a recent RSA Podcast called ‘The Decisive Moment’ on a book of the same name by Jonah Lehrer. His talk outlined how the best decision makers are often those who focus on reason and hold tight to the reigns of the emotional horses. His conclusion was that going with your gut instinct is usually the best way of making a decision.

His research looked at contemporary scientific research into the brain, which is shedding light on how we make decisions. Key to this is the role of dopamine. Dopamine neurons are the cells that process pleasure and have a critical influence on the way we think and how we act.

Experiments with monkeys have helped to demonstrate dopamine’s role. One experiment he cites began by giving a monkey a drink of apple juice, resulting in the release of dopamine. After a period of giving the same monkey solely apple juice the monkey eventually gets bored and the pleasure he receives from drinking the apple juice begins to reduce – Lehrer contrasts this with our desire for the latest consumer good that bores us two weeks later and so we move on to desiring something else. Here it gets interesting. In a further experiment the process of the scientist getting the experiment ready eventually results in the monkeys then being more excited by the prospect of being given apple juice than the actual drink itself. Anticipation of the reward is more pleasurable than the reward itself. Think of the events you spend months planning but which disappoint when you actually experience them. Or trying to recreate the conditions that made one night out a genuinely good time.

He also describes the behaviours of people with imbalances of dopamine. The example he uses is of a gambling addict feeding the bandit waiting for the drop. Of course, they will occasionally win something but the general trend will be of a steady loss. The people with too much dopamine will be particularly susceptible to continuing to feed the machine because their brain will be so surprised and pleased by the unexpected reward of the occasional win it urges them to keep going. The dopamine drowns out more rational messages that hold most people’s impulses in check.

All this raises very interesting questions about our brains and why we act the way we do. The most important question I think it raises for me is this: is Big Wool’s Pizza Night (the tradition whereby one night of Big Wool’s holiday involves pizza consumption) a  Big Wool holiday banker because of the overriding evidence that an Italian themed meal is the catalyst for a culinary enriching and convivial evening? Or is it that dopamine neurons are released at the mere thought of Big Wool’s Pizza Night….mmmm….Big Wool’s Pizza Night….holiday…fine wines…


3 Responses to “The Decisive Moment”

  1. Joycemate said

    “His talk outlined how the best decision makers are often those who focus on reason and hold tight to the reigns of the emotional horses.”

    “His conclusion was that going with your gut instinct is usually the best way of making a decision.”

    These would seem to be contradictory.

    Anyway, I’ve been there when Big Wool’s Pizza Night has turned ugly, so I think there’s a strong case for it being the latter…the promise of holiday fun keeps the tradition going. It’s Woollian ideology.

    Having said that, I also think BWPN is rooted in the fact that, wherever you are in the world, a half-decent pizza and glass of red wine can usually be found for relatively cheap – and is thus also based in observable facts & experience.

    All we can conclude at this point, I think, is that the topic requires further study.

  2. McCrack said

    I think i’ve reasoned things through and, if still unsure, gone with my gut instinct…I don’t think he’s saying it’s a clear cut process and where it isn’t your gut is as good a guide.

    Looks like making decisions with a full bladder is also good advice:

  3. tbm7 said

    BWPN has, to the best of my recollection, only ever turned sour on one occasion – out of many. On all other occasions, it has proved a winning foundation for fun, merriment and nourishment.

    But we must be careful here to distinguish context from causality. Yes, BWPN – by definition an occasion on which many fine wines will be consumed -provided the motive and the means by which TBM lost hold of his cool reasoning. But what, we must ask, was the spark that lit the fire; the misguided hand pulling at the Kerplunk set; the improvident spade loaded onto the back of the Buckaroo?

    It was none other than the old faithful: Joyce’s failure to get his round in.

    Some may buy into Joyce’s cold & calculate logic of “we were operating a kitty system”. And who loves a kitty more than TBM? But we must fight against this reason; and instead – as a wise man recently advised – go with our gut instinct.

    Still your round, Joycey.
    Always has been. Always will.


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