Your decisions don’t have to make sense
Something felt off about my fiance. Sure, we enjoyed the sex. The intellectual pillow talk. And. Um. The sex.
Did I mention the sex?
Our lives were heading down different paths. Mine stretched out toward a fulfilling career, his toward a very fine collection of anime. Despite his philosophy degree, he often behaved like a sophomore.
We got into fights over board games. And party invitations. Once or twice, he flirted with other girls and went on dates with them, mainly to make me feel jealous. It worked.
No, I shouldn’t have put up with this nonsense. But I did. My intuition said to dump him. But the rest of me didn’t listen.
Then one day I fell in love with someone else. Someone I’d met at a conference. We’d kept in touch. Out of the blue, or maybe the grey, he called me. We chatted. A day later, he sent me a selfie.
Not the dirty kind. But there was something about it. Clearly flirtatious. And I liked it. Really liked it. With a thunderclap, that’s when I knew my current relationship was over.
It didn’t feel emotional, or impulsive. Just inevitable. Sometimes you know what to do. Even if you can’t explain why.
Our rational side can screw us over, if we’re not careful. Mine had been screwing me for months.
Psychologists like to describe our thought processes as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is your cave brain. Your intuition. System 2 does the reasoning. Studies in psychology journals have shown, time and again, that System 1 makes better decisions much faster than System 2.
Still, we fight our System 1, our intuition. That’s why it took me three days to reason through my thoughts before I finally broke off the relationship with my sexy, immature fiance.
All the doubt and insecurity came from my cortex — the System 2 thoughts. My intuition, my deep mind, never second guessed.
Revaluing our true intuition
Intuition deserves a promotion and a raise. For all the times we fret over life choices, we don’t pay much attention to our snake brain.
Instead we make lists of pros and cons. Compile binders full of data. Stay up all night over-analyzing. Meanwhile, our intuition has already figured out a solution. We just have to clear head space for it.
The Dutch social psychologist Albert Dijksterhuis introduced the idea of unconscious thought (UT) in the early 2000s. Since then, he’s published a handful of studies with other researchers showing that people tend to make better judgments unconsciously, or when distracted.
We’ve heard stories about everyone from scientists to detectives solving big problems through intuitive leaps. The cliche advice “sleep on it” exists for a reason. Now we’re starting to understand why.
The jury’s still out, of course. A 2015 study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making failed to replicate Dijksterhuis’s findings. The authors had University of Amsterdam students make decisions about car purchases and apartment leases. First, they were presented all the data. Then they completed an unrelated word puzzle.
The idea was that working on the puzzle would distract the students long enough for their UT to process the information and help them make a better decision. But the study was inconclusive.
So I’m not saying let Jesus take the wheel. Don’t buy the first car you see just because it feels right. I’m also not saying to blindly trust your gut. Or your heart. Intuition still relies on input.
Using UT and your brain
Trusting your UT doesn’t mean ignoring the rest of your brain. You’ve got to find a way for conscious thought to cooperate. Let it push you into considering uncomfortable truths. That’s where it excels.
For me, staying with a sexy but immature partner felt safe. My conscious reasoning told me I had to settle. And I tried. For months, I’d been dismissing my UT. Suppressing it. Ignoring it.
But your UT won’t be ignored. It gets louder and louder, until you have no choice but to listen. Lucky for me, mine turned up the volume before anybody got left at the altar. That’s one expensive mistake.
My UT has saved my ass more than once. Last December, it helped when the rest of my family was jumping on the cryptocurrency bandwagon. Bitcoin value had skyrocketed. And they’d convinced me to invest. So I put down $500 on Coinbase and spent Christmas staring at my phone.
Yeah, even more than usual.
Crypto values had already started dropping. My anxiety ticked upward. My intuition said to dump the money back into my account.
Still, I resisted. I did “research.” The Internet told me to wait out the drop. Crypto columns predicted soaring prices in 2018. My brother cajoled me to hang in there. But my tiny, little UT told me it was too risky.
So I sold my coins. I did it despite all the supposed evidence. In all, I lost about $50. But I could’ve lost a lot more. Thanks, UT.
Developing your UT
Now you’re wondering. How do you actually get better at making decisions with UT? Pay attention to your body, your emotions, your mood. The older parts of your brain, the limbic system, communicates through visceral sensations. You know, heart rate, sweat, bristling hairs.
Personally, I feel a weird discomfort whenever I’m not approaching a problem the right way. It’s like an itch everywhere and nowhere at the same time. On days like that, I focus on the most basic tasks — errands, laundry, email. That way, I’m freeing up my UT.
Maybe I’m trying to write a post, or plan a course. Or thinking about how to fix a problem at work. Or obsessing over rumors floating around my university about budget cuts. Good decisions never come from a place of stress, urgency, anxiety, or restlessness.
Obviously, you may not always have a choice. Like if your spouse starts choking on an espresso bean, that’s not the time to engage in meta-cognitive reflection. “I’m sorry, honey. My intuition tells me there’s a third way here, something beyond the Heimlich. I’ll get back to you in the morning. Trust me, this is better for both of us.”
But generally, you want to give yourself time and distance.
No matter the problem, start with research and reasoning. Make your pros and cons list, but turn off your brain before it overheats, and you do something stupid.
Acting on impulse isn’t the same thing as utilizing your intuition. You should be calm when you pull the trigger. Not tense. And not euphoric. Watch out for euphoria. She carries a sidearm.
Relax. Meditate. Listen to music. Exercise. Go for walks. Whatever puts you in a calm state. Everyone has their own mind palace.
Return to your problem. Something that freaked you out last night might make total sense now. Your problems don’t vanish, but they can feel more manageable now. Remember that your goal isn’t to live a perfect life. Just a satisfying one. No regertz.