June 2, 2021

Why Making Decisions feels like Life or Death, according to Neuroscience.

Decisions, decisions…

From watching our favorite TV show to choosing the same item on a menu, we fall into default habits that end up making our choices for us. We become robotic automatons relying on what we know to guide the trajectory of our daily decisions. We make the habits, then they make us.

But why is that? Why is it so painfully easy to get into routines that we don’t question?

Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” normalizes our most common confusion when it comes to making decisions. We tend to look at choice through a binary lens. We either have to turn left or right, choose this or that, say yes or no…or simply avoid a decision altogether.

It comes down to our fear of missing out, aversion to loss, and bias toward the status quo.

Making decisions can produce a fear of losing out—on what could have been, or what could be. The possibility of loss attributed to making a decision is what nudges us toward not making decisions at all.

In the field of neuroscience, decision-making, as it relates to maintaining the status quo, happens in concert with a whole host of neurochemical activity. One particular area highlighted in research is referred to as the subthalamic nucleus (STN)—an area of the brain that keeps us from acting while in the process of making a decision.

Ultimately, our brain is looking out for us.

It waits for us to feel motivated enough to make a committed decision then signals us to take the corresponding action. However, if we second-guess ourselves too much, it will keep us from initiating any action at all. This is the “deer-in-headlights” effect. It’s why we condemn ourselves to make no choice at all, conceding that power to our environment. It’s thanks to our paleolithic forefathers that making a decision can feel like a matter of life or death. For them, it was.

Every time we don’t make a choice because there are too many possible outcomes, we not only tell our brain we fear making those kinds of decisions, we also disempower ourselves. We get into a habit of believing we aren’t capable of making hard decisions at all. We buy into a belief system that does not serve us or our goals.

In the field of Behavioral Science, there is a behavioral tendency known as the status quo bias. In short, we default to what we already know. It feels safer. It is familiar.

In these familiar spaces, we are also known. Changing our environment means changing who we are. Our brain is so committed to continuity, patterns, and safety that this feels like an attack.

Change could cost us who we used to be.

Our brain is not a fan of this—it wants us to stay right where we are.

“The status quo bias can have a serious impact on a wide variety of everyday decisions. For example, you may find yourself ordering the same menu item every time you visit your favorite restaurant. Some of the newer items on the menu may look tempting, but you already know that you will be satisfied with your old favorite. Instead of trying a new dish, and running the risk that you will not like it, you’d rather stick to your tried-and-true favorite. This minimizes the risk of any potential losses (being unhappy with what you ordered), but you also miss out on the possible benefits, such as finding a new favorite dish.”

The fear of potential loss also keeps us from the possibility of future gains. We deserve gains as much as we deserve losses. We should not fear the losses, but our brain is wired to avoid them at all costs—including the potential gains or learning about ourselves, others, and/or our environment.

Evolution gave us the adaptation of binary thinking because our ancestors lived in an environment that forced them to think in terms of life or death. Take a wrong turn and it could cost your life or the life of a loved one. However, we live in different times, which means we need to think differently.

Yes, there are still existential dangers to consider. No, this is not a call to blind naivete. Perspective is key.

We have the ability to perceive choice much differently than our cave-dwelling forbears. This alone should give us enough motivation to see beyond our own cultural and historical hardwiring to acknowledge that we need a much different approach to making daily decisions.

So, what is the most efficient anecdote to fear? Curiosity.

Research has shown that cultivating a ritual of curiosity drives away the fears that seem so naturally connected to decision-making. If we want to break the cycle of anxiety around getting it wrong, we have to stop thinking curiosity belongs only to children—and ultimately, embrace the mindset of a child.

Becoming curious has been shown to help break us out of cycles, doubt, and indecision loops. One way to get us out of this paralyzing fear loop is to challenge our existing beliefs about choice.

There are not just two options, one right and one wrong. “Getting it wrong” is okay. Learning from our decisions—even our “mistakes“—is part of a much larger process of growth and progress.

If we can begin to see decisions outside the scope of a simplistic set of labels, we might open to the possibility that making a choice is an end in itself.

We might see that decisions happen on a continuum, rather than a poetic fork in a road. And on a continuum, we can begin to understand our role is not to become frozen by anxiety, but curious to see what’s around the bend.

Making decisions is an art form—and the only way to get better at any art is to keep painting.


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