• Apollo

The decision making fallacy

Elliot was a successful man with great things going for him. He was a capable and intelligent business lawyer with a loving wife, living the life that many ambitious men only dream of.

His life took a surprising turn when a tumor was discovered in his head. What would normally be a cliché story turned into something remarkable, an unprecedented case in psychology.

You see, Elliot was okay. For the most part.

His surgery was considered a success and he was the same person, at least on paper. He could engage in discussions, his cognition was as good as ever before, and he scored equally high on his IQ tests as before the surgery. You could say he functioned normally, despite the fact that a tumor the size of a small orange was removed near his frontal lobe.

But there was something new and strange about him that his friends noticed quickly: His personality changed.

Capable on paper, poor in practice

The surgery transformed Elliot, as it would anyone else. Your life is bound to get a little weird if a small chunk is nabbed from your head. But even personality changes resulting from surgeries weren't new or odd in psychology.

Elliot would suddenly start making terrible decisions despite his unchanged intelligence. He started making bad investments, his wife left him, and he even got fired from his job.

It didn't make sense in the slightest. He wasn't suddenly dumber or less capable. He had retained his sharp reasoning, capable memory and good attention span.

Robots make terrible decisions

Elliot's life took a massive nosedive. He spent his life savings on horrible investments, got fired from job after job, and spent his days wasting his time on trivial things (Mind you, this was before the age of smartphones).

He went to see a neurologist in hopes of getting a diagnosis so that he would be granted a disability pension. He didn't want to be considered lazy or that he would just be faking an illness.

His neurologist, Antonio Damasio, noticed that he lacked just one crucial skill: Elliot had a complete lack of care for consequences. He didn't bat an eye talking about the depressing tragedy that was his recent life. He was completely unemotional, like he was a spectator of his own life just telling what had happened without the slightest fragment of regret, sadness, frustration or rage. In fact, Damasio was more moved about Elliot's story than Elliot himself.

The origins of fantastic decision making

Damasio concluded that Elliot's indifference was caused by his surgery: when the tumor and a part of his frontal lobe was removed, the operation had cut the connection between the amygdala, the emotional response center and decision maker of the brain, and the neocortex. The neocortex is responsible for the finer cognitive processes in the brain, enabling us to remember and learn, for instance.

This essentially meant that the wire between deduction and reaction was cut in Elliot's head. He had, in other words, begun to think like a computer: he was still able to conduct perfectly logical and advanced thought processes, but he did not know the value of the end results. All he had was a massive amount of options and no emotions to compare them with. He was not able to reach a good conclusion because he did not know enough about his feelings anymore.

He couldn't even make simple daily decisions: When he tried to schedule the next meeting with Damasio, he couldn't determine when to see him. He cleverly argued both for and against meeting on Damasio alternative days, but he couldn't choose between them.

Elliot's lack of feelings demonstrates how crucial emotions are in decision making. There are decisions that you can't base on pure logic and reasoning, no matter how you would want to. Such decisions are buying your dream home, what career to choose, whether to switch jobs or not, or who to marry. These foundational decisions are made by combining logical reasoning with your emotions to reach a satisfying compromise.

Getting your priorities wrong

The tragic story of Elliot also illustrates that some decisions can't be made by just ranking individual alternatives objectively. Let's imagine choosing between two imaginary jobs: Sweatshop Studios and Chillville & Co.

Sweatshop Studios is a high-risk, high-reward environment. The hours are long, consisting of strenuous evenings five days a week, but the job offers a great salary. In Chillville & Co., you get paid less but also get to go home on time. On paper, Sweatshop Studios is better if you love the money. Chillville & Co. is better if you value your time. But which one is more important? What determines that?

That's right. Your emotions do.

You reach a dead end at some point in the decision making process. You get two scales, or two priorities, and your rational mind can't rank them with a numerical value. Time versus money in a job. Kindness versus intelligence in a partner. Coziness versus location in a home.

These are big and tough questions. Questions that define the very direction of your fate. But don't let your rational thinking carry the load in solving them, because you might step in the wrong direction, just like Elliot did.

Let your head and heart work together.

(This was the third article of twelve foundational articles by The Rational Society in 2022. The story of this article is introduced in Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence. This book is a fascinating look into the massive role that emotions play in human success when compared to IQ.)