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Category » Who’s in charge here? « @ richard newton

How to make the right decision when you didn’t know you already knew the answer


Tsk! We return to the pesky brain and its annoying habit of thinking.

One of  the problems with thinking is that it gets in the way of decision-making.

Often enough you know the answer to a decision but your brain hasn’t realised.  And as you know, the more you think about some things, the more you find you can rationalise all sides of the argument. Great and thanks for nothing!

While your brain is reaching for  the aspirin, muttering: “Oh Lord – yet another riddle wrapped in a mystery inside  an enigma” …your gut feeling is saying: “The one on the left, mate”.

Your sub-conscious has a pretty good idea because it isn’t bothered by all the extraneous stuff of thought clouding its judgement.

Incidentally, Eeyore used to tell Winnie the Pooh that most other animals didn’t have brains, “just grey fluff that’s blown into their head by mistake”. Lucky them.

So how do you manage to listen to your gut feeling – your first instinct –  without your brain chirping up and getting in the way?










Well, let’s assume  you’re stranded like Dr. Dolittle’s Pushmi-Pullyu as you grapple with an agonising decision –  such as which piece of creative to use for your campaign, or something even harder like what to have for dinner  – then here’s what to do:

Toss a coin.

Let fate make the decision for you.

Be clear which result implies which decision. And once the coin has made the decision for you then instantly check your feelings for the rush of relief (that was the right decision) or the sinking feeling and impulse to make it the best of three (your gut instinct was the other decision).

That’s it.

Who said it had to be complicated?


Why George, a geologist from Georgia married Georgina

Your sub-conscious will nudge you toward careers, lovers, historical figures, purchases and places to live for the most trivial of reasons: that they share letters with your name or numbers with your birthday.

And the  amazing thing is that you will make up reasons after the event to explain your actions.

For example:

You are disproportionately likely to marry someone whose first or last name resembles yours.

(Researchers trawled through heaps of public records to establish this)







You are more likely to want products whose names are similar to yours.

(Experiments with tea, biscuits and candy have demonstrated this. In a typical experiment participants Sandra and Larry were offered two new invented brands of tea: Sanya and Larin. Sandra believed that Sanya tested better while Larry preferred the taste of Larin. The tea came from the same pot)

Exhaustive studies of professional directories show that:

  • People with names like Denis and Denise are statistically over-represented in the dental industry.
  • Laura and Lawrence are over-represented in law.
  • George and Georgina are over-represented in geology.
  • People whose surnames include doc, dok and med are over-represented in the medical profession.

Psychologists call this implicit egotism. We love ourselves so much that our powerful sub-conscious seeks out and warms to reflections of ourself. Meanwhile the poor conscious brain scrambles to try and explain our decisions : “Er, Larin tasted better than Sanya”.

Self-love will even spill over and shine a fond light on another person’s life history  provided that on some trivial basis that person resembles you. Here’s another experiment:

University students were given a particularly negative story to read about Rasputin, the crazy Russian Monk who made his name in a Boney M song. The stories provided to half the students were secretly rigged so they appeared to share a birth date with Rasputin. And what do you know? Those who appeared to share a birthdate all thought Rasputin was a much nicer and sympathetic character than the other half.

Your implicit egotism will even try to influence where you live.

Absurd as it sounds, people with birthdays on 2nd of Feb are statistically more likely to move to a city with a name that features the concept of “two” in it.

Which explains why there are more people born on 2/2 than there ought to be in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. People born on 3/3 are disproportionately represented in Three Forks, Montana . The same is true in Six Mile, Carolina and every other city that the researchers tested.

Incidentally, the reason I’m writing this is I have a friend who was born on 11th November and was trying to predict where she might move to. Currently she lives in London but maybe she just hasn’t found a town with the number 11 in it.

Implicit egotism won’t make decisions for you, but it will gently push you in a direction you are interested in. I find it fascinating because these experiments show again how our decision-making is driven by factors that we are unaware of. We just see the tip of the iceberg.

Alas, my name is Rich. And it ain’t working for me.


Who’s really in charge here?

It ain’t your brain. Half the time your body does your thinking for you.

This becomes ever more apparent.

Take skin, for example. Your skin tightens when it recognises something is wrong. In one experiment people were dealt cards from two packs – a good pack and a bad pack – in a  simple game. After 26 draws people consciously realised that one of the packs was bad and would say no to cards from that pack. In contrast sensors found that the subjects’ skin would show stress signs every time cards were dealt from the bad pack after only 16 draws.

Or take your feet. Another series of experiments show that in a high stress situation you think better if you just step back. I don’t mean metaphorically stand back and see the “big picture”. I mean take a real step backwards. It works!

Or your gut. In the first trimester of pregnancy women’s immune systems are significantly compromised. So the gut creates a heightened sense of disgust. Anything that looks slightly yucky looks way more horrid than normal and therefore the pregnant woman turns away from last night’s pizza (so they say!) and  the risks of illness are diminished.

And here’s a new piece of research which I love. It shows that the most accurate posture to assume when you’re making a guess is to stand up (or sit up) straight. If you lean to the left you will tend to underestimate. I kid you not. (Leaning to the right didn’t appear to affect people’s guessing ability.)

The theory underlying this is two-fold.

  • Firstly, it is known that the brain tends to link smaller numbers to the left side of the brain and larger numbers to the right.
  • And secondly there’s a growing body of science about the influence of our subconscious on our cognitive-processes (such as decision-making).

The conclusions of much of this growing body of research reveal that a large part of the tooth-suckingdecision-making which we think of as entirely conscious and rational is in fact stealthily influenced by our body’s communication with our sub-conscious.

We think we’re in charge but …unh huh.

At which point I check my own body position and realise I am in the classic hunched-Mister-Burns-at-a-laptop-slump and I wonder if that’s why I need a beer. Tsk!





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