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The Emotional Tail Wags The Dog

Our brain is in essence an operating system that was designed for speed and efficiency in an unpredictable and unsafe world. We had to think fast because physical threats (invaders and predators) necessitated quick decisions for self-preservation. It doesn’t pay, survival-wise, to spend too much time analyzing your options with a large hungry animal charging at you. We had to think fast or die young.

Psychologist David Ropeik breaks our cognitive functioning into two systems: System One and System Two. System One operates mostly subconsciously. It is faster at handling information and coming to conclusions than System Two. System One is intuitive and relies primarily on feelings and mental shortcuts to make decisions. System Two is your analytical, logical, conscious cognitive processor. It’s activated when there is time to pay attention. Unfortunately, all that analyzing takes time and energy, so System Two isn’t as fast or efficient as System One. So, which system do you think is in control most of the time?

System One is our default cognitive operating system (Autopilot); however, we typically use a combination of both. The way our brains are wired gives emotion and instinct a leg up over our analytical processing system. That means our decisions are mainly driven by emotions, not rational analysis. Unconscious thinking versus conscious thinking. Autopilot versus awareness.

Why is this important? Because we have all sorts of biases, fallacies, and complexes tucked away in our unconscious mind and these blind spots influence our decision-making. Unfortunately, this is where mistakes are made.

We simply don’t have time or capacity for analytical thinking 100% of the time, so we need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of autopilot thinking (System One). Our greatest weapon is “awareness.” When you become aware of making a snap decision, ask yourself why you made the choice you did. You might discover some of your personal biases in the process.

Understanding how we think is critical for better decision-making. And, decision-making is the cornerstone of influence, which is an essential aspect of our business and personal lives. Fortunately, there are tips and tools to help us become better decision-makers and influencers. I will take a deeper dive into these tactics in future posts. Until then, begin to take notice when you've made a decision on autopilot. Self-awareness is the first step to better decision-making.


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