Decision making in the moment

Blog | 16 Dec, 2015

Before we start, I would like you to close your eyes and think back on the last decision you made. If I were to ask you afterwards what it was you were thinking of, chances are that you were thinking about a rather impactful or important decision.

It can range anywhere from buying a house, where to go next summer to what groceries to buy for dinner tonight.

The rational argument would be that buying a house is much more important than what to have for dinner, but to your brain the difference isn't that big, and the underlying computation isn't either.

You are constantly rewarding and punishing yourself

Simplified, there are two factors involved in decision making – repetitiveness and predicted outcome. The more the decision is repeated, and the better the brain has been at predicting outcome (rewarding/punishment/none of the two) the higher priority this decision will have - not only when applying it to the same decision next time, but to any decision that the brain deems similar or associates it with.

If a decision was really this simple and only based on these factors, then we might just look at ourselves as automatic, reactive and without free will. Frankly, there are scientists that claim this is the case. But the majority conform to the notion of free will – and for this to be explained I need to make the simple a bit more complex.

As automatic as the process of repetitiveness and predicted outcome is, there are also several elements that create noise and others that can overrule and redefine the outcome of decisions.

The noise and the entanglement of incoming data

In order to determine whether a decision has been made before and what the outcome was, we rely on long term memory. Since we make millions of decisions each year (and not all are equally rewarding) your brain is constantly computing many different scenarios of the same decision – and partly prioritising these on similarity with previous decisions made.

Your brain never encounters the same perfectly aligned set of incoming data as the last time, therefore there's a likelihood that this situation can overlap with a similar but very different decision.

The data your brain is using also falls victim of another crucial part of the memory – heuristics. Heuristics are like mental shortcuts – or algorithms – that are set to compute a subset of incoming data in the same way every time.  It’s like hitting play with no way of pausing until it’s finished and by then the data has been reduced. Heuristics play a vital role in resource management but can come with a heavy price tag in terms of noise.

The commander in chief – clueless and all powerful

Let's use the President of the USA and his decision making process as an analogy. There is a part of the brain, referred to as the executive function, that sits on top of all the before mentioned computation, noise and entanglement. This can direct and impose changes to the priority of the computations (much like the president relies on advisors that have thousands of people sifting through data and making sub-computations).

In himself, the president is pretty clueless. No matter how bright and intelligent he is, he has no way of gathering the necessary amount of data for his complicated decisions. He will not question the sub-computations of the thousands of staff that inform him through his advisors.

Now imagine the president, and his knowledge of the world, is all that is part of consciousness in your brain. Even his advisors who are authorised to make quick decisions, corrections to the incoming data, and ask their staff to re-compute something, are working on an unconscious level. They will however need to direct any recommendations or insights to the president in the areas where he has asked them to.

For example, if the president is currently attending to the foreign affairs and war in Syria, any information or data that can impact or likely be useful to that area needs to get to him. There are rules that if any urgent information comes through around a long list of subjects, these need to be run through the president first. Other than that, his advisors are authorised to make decisions in their field of expertise themselves.

Here you have a good impression on how consciousness is limited, attention skews decision making and how much data is prepossessed on many levels until it's either discarded or acted upon.

Your website is vulnerable due to the decision making process

After this crash course in how your brain makes decisions, you need to also understand that your website is especially vulnerable due to these processes.

More and more decisions are made while online and although there are variables between competitor sites, areas can still be very similar. The data influencing the decision making is heavy on noise in relation to heuristics and memory.

Firstly, this puts the executive function in charge - with limited resources, the 'back' button, 'close' or ‘new tab’ functions in modern web browsers are preferable as they have a reliable and predictable outcome.

Secondly, we heavily rely on vision whilst browsing online, therefore video is an excellent channel for brand and product communication.

Lastly, the internet is what I call an 'action-active environment', opposed to watching TV, which is an 'action-passive environment'. This means that unconsciously we put ourselves in charge when we browse online. We have a sense of control and all information is just a touch or click away.

In TV this is different as we are expecting to be served content and to be entertained. The level of control is limited to changing channels or turning it all off. The way we process information is therefore very different. There is much more at stake when we are in control ourselves, as we can only blame ourselves for failure.

Everything comes down to decision making in the moment

Apart from the complex working of the different memory systems we have, we are essentially living our lives one moment to the next. As explained in the analogy with the US presidency, these moments consist of an amazing range of pruned and condensed data – and we haven’t even started to talk about the role of emotions in all of this. 

View the moments as placing one dot after the other until you end up with an overall image. This is your internal narrative; the interpretation of the moments that we can be verbal about.

Decision making in the moment is all about exploring the internal narratives, the behaviour, the unconscious reactions of your customers and using this to improve and optimise your website and your business.

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