I’ve been trying to understand what goes on in decision making processes. Why do smart people make seemingly stupid judgments?

Here’s what I’ve discovered from authors Sydney Finkelstein, Jo Whitehead and Andrew Campbell in Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep It From Happening to You (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).

The answers lie within our brains. The brain uses two processes that enable us to cope with complexities:

  • Pattern recognition
  • Emotional tagging

Both help us make excellent decisions most of the time. But in certain conditions, these processes can mislead us, resulting in poor judgments and bad decisions.

Most of the time, pattern recognition works remarkably well. But when something looks familiar—yet truly is not—we can be fooled into thinking we understand it.

This problem is called a “misleading experience,” and it’s a major contributor to faulty reasoning. Our brains house memories of past experiences that connect with inputs we are receiving. But when the past experiences are not a good match with the current situation, we form wrong conclusions.

Another problem arises when our thinking has been primed before we receive the inputs. For example, we may have made previous judgments or decisions that connect to the current situation, but they may, in fact, be inappropriate. This causes us to misjudge the information we are receiving—faulty thinking known as a “misleading prejudgment.”

Emotions are essential in decision making. While most of us pride ourselves on our ability to be analytical and rational, our brains simply do not work this way. We depend on emotional input to focus our thinking and make choices. But this often happens without our full awareness.

Emotions primarily work on our bodies in unconscious ways, and we cannot eliminate their effect, as hard as we may try. Most of the time, emotions are helpful, but they can sometimes lead to disaster. We need some way of anticipating when our emotions may cause a problem.

These two things are important to keep in mind when weighing judgments and decisions. Ask yourself if you are seeing patterns that aren’t valid? Do you recognize which emotions have an influence on you, perhaps subconsciously?

What do you think about these two concepts when it comes to making rational decisions? I’d love to hear from you.