We make countless decisions every day. We probably feel as though we generally make those decisions completely rationally. However, that is most likely not the case. We probably make many decisions each day that are not entirely rational, and that would not yield the optimal business outcomes.
Fortunately, research in neuroscience suggests that we can rewire our brains for better decision making. And, we don’t have to add anything to our schedules to do so.
The hidden cause of poor decisions
Often, the problem with decision making isn’t necessarily that we don’t know what to do. The problem is that we are subject to decision-making biases, called cognitive biases, which cause us to unconsciously make decisions that are less than optimal.
The idea of cognitive biases was introduced by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1970s. Their work showed quite clearly that people often make decisions that deviate substantially from what strict rationale would indicate is the correct choice.
Tversky and Kahneman also showed that they could predict quite accurately when people would act irrationally, because the irrational behavior was due to measurable cognitive biases. This work on cognitive biases became the foundation for the field of behavioral economics and resulted in Kahneman winning the Nobel Prize in 2002.
A surprising tool for making better business decisions
One tool that can improve our ability to make more consistently rational decisions is the practice of mindfulness. Although often thought of as a tool for reducing stress and increasing emotional intelligence, those are effects of a more fundamental shift that occurs when we become mindful.
Being mindful means that we have shifted from being our thinking to being self-aware, which means that we are aware of thinking and the emotional state of the body. University of Toronto neuroscientist Norman Farb, as well as others, have shown that the shift to mindfulness corresponds to a shift from one neural network in the brain (the default mode network), which is associated with self-referential and habitual behavior, to areas of the brain that offer a more objective view of the self.
When we have this objective view of our thinking and emotional state, which mindfulness provides, research suggests that we are freed up from our conditioned, habitual ways of acting and deciding, and are more likely to make rational decisions.
For instance, Virginia Tech University researcher Ulrich Kirk and his colleagues used a tool of behavioral economics, the ultimatum game, to test the effects of mindfulness on decision making. In this economic game, two players split a sum of money. One player proposes how the money is split, and the other player decides whether to accept or reject the offer. If the offer is accepted, the money will be split as proposed. If the offer is rejected, none of the players receive any money.
According to the rational choice theory, participants should accept any offer in which they get any money because a small amount is clearly better than nothing. However, in practice, people often decline offers in which they get less than 20% of the amount.
The researchers found that mindfulness practitioners accepted twice as many unfair offers than non-practitioners, indicating that mindfulness practitioners make more rational decisions.
While deciding about accepting an unfair offer, non-practitioners showed brain activation in a neural network involving emotion, cognition and brain areas related to the sense of self, including the medial prefrontal cortex, anterior insula, and anterior cingulate cortex. Mindfulness practitioners had a completely different brain activation pattern, with increases in the posterior insula and the thalamus, which are associated with body awareness.
Mindfulness training is often conceived of as taking time out of the day to sit still and watch the breeze. However, we don’t have to add anything to our schedules to practice mindfulness. It is possible to practice during simple daily activities like brushing your teeth, commuting to work, walking, etc.
All we need to do is make the effort become and remain mindfully self-aware during those activities. This can be achieved by adopting and sustaining a curious attitude and noticing physical sensations and thoughts as they arise and pass away. This simple shift to mindfulness can transform daily activities, like preparing coffee and waiting for a meeting to start, into opportunities to rewire the brain for better business acumen.
Matt Tenney is the co-author of “The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule” (Wiley, March 2016). Through keynote speeches and training programs, he works to develop highly effective leaders who achieve extraordinary, long-term business outcomes — and live more fulfilling lives — as a result of realizing high levels of self-mastery and more effectively serving and inspiring greatness in the people around them. Tenney’s clients include Wells Fargo, Marriott, Keller Williams, The Four Seasons, and many other companies, associations, and universities. For more information, visit TheMindfulnessEdge.com and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.
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