Donald Stearns and Utteeyo Dasgupta: Careful Thinking

Donald Stearns and Utteeyo Dasgupta: Careful Thinking

Making sound decisions is critical to survival and success. Yet, we often think irrationally, ignoring credible evidence and logical consideration. How do we train ourselves to make more rational decisions?

As a biologist and a behavioral economist who focus on teaching and learning, we want to help you think through how this self-destructive dynamic happens — and how you can change it.

First, you need to understand how your brain works. The brain makes sense of the world by connecting new perceptions with what it has perceived in the past. This process often leads to inaccurate perceptions of reality. An illustration: When Donald’s daughter was a little girl and first encountered deep snow, her brain connected the small, white particles with what she already knew: sugar. She thought the snow was sugar and wanted to bring some inside, in case people needed it.

Our ‘short-term self’ often leads us to make irrational, impulsive decisions based on unexamined mental perceptions.

Such mistakes happen not only to children, but also to adults. In fact, the longer we live with a major misperception, the more we have invested in it, the more decisions we have made throughout our lives based on it, and the less likely we are to change our minds. Unconsciously, we support our perceptions, selecting information that favors them, regardless of their accuracy or validity, and dismissing contrary evidence as not credible — the process known as confirmation bias.

When we have believed misinformation, we continue to operate from that standpoint unless we consciously override it. Conscious override requires deliberate, purposeful examination of that perception based on credible evidence collected with as little bias as possible. That’s a lot of work.

Psychologists and behavioral economists routinely point out that such behavior allows us to fall prey to decisions that are not in our best interests. Remember that New Year’s resolution to get into better shape? Most of us, during our first visit to a health club, are overly optimistic about our exercise plans, and we willingly sign expensive contracts. Research suggests that too often we overestimate our resolve and end up paying much more than we should.

Of course, the health clubs’ contract offerings, where people essentially end up paying for “not going” to the gym, are not coincidences. George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, two Nobel Prize winners in economic sciences, show in their 2015 book, Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, that companies and businesses routinely exploit us based on such irrational decision making.

cartoon of a brain in the shape of a human running on a treadmill

©2018 Ryan Snook c/o theispot.com

So, how do we override our unconscious biases and misperceptions? By purposefully trying to distinguish fact from fiction, striving to collect credible information in an unbiased manner, and critically examining concepts based on that evidence.

One of the first steps is to examine our sources of information. If the source has a vested interest in shaping what we think (for example, a politician’s web page), we should verify information using reliable sources with no such vested interest. We teach our students to rely on scholarly articles and reports that are independently reviewed by professionally recognized experts, and journalism that draws conclusions based on well-researched evidence instead of cherry-picked information. Look for news organizations and journalists who belong to reputable professional organizations that have truth and accuracy standards, as well as codes of ethics. We also recommend online venues that help distinguish credible from not credible information, such as AllSides.com, FactCheck.org, OpenSources.co, PolitiFact.com, PubPeer.com, RetractionWatch.com, Snopes.com, USAFacts.org, WebLiteracy.PressBooks.com, and WikiTribune.com.

As we collect evidence, we must consciously override confirmation bias. We must allow the possibility of changing our minds when credible evidence leads in that direction. Such careful thinking allows us to better understand situations and make rational decisions.

Thomas Schelling, a behavioral economist and another Nobel Prize winner, suggested that each of us has two selves: a short-term self who is easily distracted and seeks immediate rewards, and a long-term self who is far-sighted and strong-willed. After we have collected solid evidence for our decisions, another approach towards making rational choices is to place the short-term self in a carefully structured maze that redirects some of the primal, impulsive, and instinctive actions towards long-term, more rational goals.

For example, returning to the failed New Year’s resolution to regularly exercise at the health club: the earnest health-club enthusiast may decide to go to the gym with others. With this conscious, deliberate, slight restructuring, even if the short-term self does not want to follow through with the long-term self’s New Year’s resolution, the gym partner will nudge the short-term self to stick to the exercise routine. Another example: Setting up an automatic payroll deduction for retirement contributions ensures that, with each paycheck, there will be some funds saved towards retirement — funds that, given impulsive human nature, would have likely been spent instead on ephemeral, short-term goals.

A realistic approach towards making rational choices to achieve long-term goals that are in one’s best interests starts with deliberately and carefully considering long-term goals, then purposefully configuring actions in ways that discourage impulsive decisions and encourage more rational choices. Richard Thaler, another Nobel Prize winner in economics, and Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor, in their bestselling 2008 book, Nudge, refer to this general structuring approach as designing “choice architecture.” They focus on how policy makers can use choice architecture to present policy choices in ways that encourage consumers to make more responsible choices that benefit them in the long term, without taking away their freedom to choose.

Almost everyone has a short-term self that wants to be satisfied, which often leads us to make irrational, impulsive decisions based on unexamined mental perceptions. At the same time, we do want to make rational decisions to improve our individual situations in the long term. By carefully, deliberately reconsidering our perceptions in an unbiased manner before drawing a conclusion, we can achieve a clearer understanding of a situation. We are more likely to make rational decisions that are in our best interests based on that clearer understanding.

Careful thinking is purposeful, hard work — the brain will not do this automatically. However, such thinking is necessary to improve one’s lot or address problems in the larger society. It is key to responsibly coping in today’s complex, changing world.


Donald Stearns, Ph.D., is a professor of biology and director of the Wagner College Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research. Utteeyo Dasgupta, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of economics.

Learn more about this topic and hear from Donald Stearns and other experts at "The Brain, The Mind, & How We Learn," a conference at Wagner College.