We’ve all probably been in a situation where we can’t decide between two options and someone has said to just flip a coin and let it decide.
It turns out that this may be a very good approach indeed – but not quite in the way we think.
For a long time we assumed that people were rational creatures, governed by a conscious mind that made decisions based on logic.
Relatively recent research found that we weren’t as logical as we though we were – behavioural economics showed that we acted in ways that weren’t consistent with logic.
Behavioural economics, in turn, is criticised by some because what happens in the laboratory does not always show up in the real world.
For example, altruism shows up more often than we expect in experiments, as people share when they have no need to do so – but at the same time do they only share because they are being watched in an experiment?
As we became increasingly aware of the vast number of things the brain does without any conscious intervention – useful things like breathing and digestion – some researchers also realised that our body seemed to know things before our minds caught up.
For example, if people played a card game with two sets of decks, one of which was rigged, they eventually worked out that something was wrong with one of the decks.
When researchers monitored players using methods like measuring galvanic skin response – how much they sweated – the found that their bodies seemed to figure out the wrong deck well in advance of their conscious minds catching up.
Somehow their bodies were taking in a lot more information through their senses and using all that to figure out what was going on – and reacting to their findings emotionally – raising heart rates and sweating more.
The work of Antonio Damasio, described in David Eagleman’s book Incognito: The secret lives of the brain, forms the foundation of much of this research.
Damasio, a neuroscientist, found that patients that had suffered damage to their brains and were no longer to process emotion and the kind of signals their bodies were giving them – so called somatic markers – were unable to make good choices.
In the card deck example above, they were unable to distinguish the bad decks, even after they had been told there was one.
In other words, our ability to make wise choices is fundamentally linked to the reaction our bodies have when confronted with the sensory data in front of us – and a completely rational Spock like approach will more than likely fail us.
What this means is that when we have to make a tough decision and flip a coin – instead of focusing on which side lands, we should be monitoring our body’s reaction.
If we have a sense of relief when a particular side lands or we get knotted up with tension – that is our body’s way of telling us which decision is the right one – through gut instinct.
Then, we should ignore the coin toss and go with our gut.