Friday, May 29, 2009

Decision-Making, Intuitive or Rational

Today's blog is about an interesting aspect of decision-making, a subject on which I consult. I've met people who think that the way to decide is to rely on their intuition, “Just do what your inner self tells you to do.” Of course I've also met others who disagree and insist on a logical approach. The argument can get quite heated at times. Which is correct? Should you think rationally or intuitively? Well, if you were rowing a boat, which oar would you use? Rational and intuitive thought are like the left and right oars, in nearly all situations they are best used together.

If you are a normal human, you have not one but *two* wonderful minds. Your left brain is good at logical, rational tasks. It tends to be very analytic but its use takes deliberate effort. This sort of mental activity is slow and plodding, but can be very accurate if done correctly. Your right brain, on the other hand, is more creative and intuitive as well as emotional. It can reach conclusions quickly without you even knowing how it does it. This brain can produce some spectacular results, often providing the right solution to problems seemingly from out of nowhere. However it can also be spectacularly wrong, providing “solutions” that cause tremendous trouble.

Consider for example the statement made by a famous person, "I work through instinct, and instinct is my best counselor." Would you think that a person who lives that way is likely to make good decisions? Is instinct (or intuition) likely to help avoid danger? It that case it didn't. That statement was from the last interview given by Princess Dianna, shortly before instinct allowed her to go to her death. Intuition or Instinct can give us ideas, but it is usually best to cross-check those ideas with the rational part of our minds.

Another example of the bad effects of over-reliance on intuition is the number of people who "follow their heart" without rational checks and balances. Too many people fall for the idea that "love conquers all" or that they must follow their emotions in matters of romance. That sounds nice, but have you checked the divorce rate in this country? Obviously great numbers of people are being mislead by their emotions. Emotions are good but by themselves they are poor guides to living.

On the other hand, consider the actions of Jackie Larsen of Minnesota. As she was leaving a prayer group she encountered Christopher Bono, a clean-cut and well-mannered sixteen year old. He claimed that his car was broken down and he needed a ride to meet friends. She sensed that something was wrong and insisted that they talk on the sidewalk, in plain sight of other people. Larsen told him, "I am a mother and I have to talk to you like a mother...I can tell by your manners that you have a nice mother."

At the mention of his mother Bono claimed that he didn't know where she was. Larsen then sent him to talk to the pastor while she called the police.

Christopher's car was registered to his mother. When police went to her apartment they found her in the bathtub - murdered. Christopher was charged with the murder.*

Jackie Larsen's actions are a good example of how to combine the intuitive and the rational. Her intuition told her that something just wasn't right. However it could not tell her what the problem was, nor what to do about it. Using both her rational and logical minds she protected herself by not being alone with Bono. Then she initiated an investigation by contacting the police.

How did Larsen's intuition pick up on the problem? The complete process remains unknown. However research shows that the right brain collects experiences and makes connections between past events and current situations. As an experienced mother, Larsen had seen plenty of evasion by young people. She could not have told you exactly what aroused her suspicions, but she did recognize that something didn't seem right.

That is at least part of what the intuitive brain does. It recognizes patterns too complex for easy rational analysis. The right brain can match those patterns in a hurry. It may not explicitly say that this particular pattern is like a problem from 20 years ago, but it can send a message that something is just doesn't quite fit.
Once the right brain recognizes a possible problem we have a choice. In some situations, the fight or flight syndrome kicks in. However the problem is seldom that urgent, usually we have time to look at things rationally. We can gather more information and logically decide on the best course of action. By doing so we get the best of both sides of our brains.

Returning to the example of romance, what should a couple do if their emotions (and hormones) urge them to marry or otherwise pair up? My advice goes against the grain of popular belief, but they should use their analytic side to check to see that they are really compatible for the long term. They should, for example, talk seriously about children, finances and in-laws, the “three big” problems that wreck marriages. In fact it is a good idea to bring in a competent pre-marital counselor. Such a professional can provide information based on research and on the experiences of others. He can point out potential problems the couple will face. In many cases he can help them prepare so that their relationship remains strong in spite of the problems. In a few cases, they may decide that the kindest thing they can do for each other is to not marry.

Our right brain is the seat of intuition and emotion. Much of what it does is what makes life worth living. Without it we have no drive, no appetites or passions. However in making decisions we must remember that those intuitions, appetites and passions alone can lead us to trouble. They must be tempered by reason.

*The Jackie Larsen account is from pp31-32 of _Intuition, Its Powers and Perils_ by David G. Myers, Yale University Press, 2002. The Princess Diana account is from the same book.

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