You know you are spending too much time researching decision making theory, when you cannot decide if the anxiety you are experiencing is the result of catastrophising, experiencing status quo bias, the wise voice of your intuition speaking up, fear of regret or an unrealistic expectation of being able to control everything.
Type one thinking (the intuitive, emotional way that we make many decisions) gets a mixed press. The limbic system (sometimes referred to as the mammalian brain) is responsible for a lot of our quick, automatic decisions. It is responsible for all our auto-pilot actions, and also our sense of “gut feeling” or intuition. It gets us through the day by making all sorts of decisions from what to wear, how to get to work and how to do our routine tasks.
Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” describes the limbic system as a bit lazy and prone to bias. It will tend to prefer the familiar option or the status quo, which probably protected us from danger in days gone by, but may keep us stuck rather than moving us forward. My anxiety could simply be my natural preference for things to stay the same making itself felt.
Apparently, we tend to have a magnified fear of regret, which is why we prefer a passive, non-decision over an active choice to do something different. When we find it hard to decide, we tend to stick with the path we are on rather than risk regretting our decision later. When I find myself hoping that the decision will be taken out of my hands, that is probably because I have a fear of making the wrong decision and then regretting it (for ever, of course).
On the other hand, many people credit intuition with providing deeper insights that our logical, rational brain cannot access. Type one thinking occurs as a result of the brain quickly and subconsciously analysing all the similar situations we have been in, all the information we have right now and how important different aspects of the situation are to us. It then sends us a message in the form of an urge to take action or an emotional response. It can sift through far more information than our type two, logical thought process could ever hope to. The more relevant experience we have to draw on, the wiser this intuitive response is likely to be.
Dina Glouberman has written extensively about the power of images and imagination to guide us wisely, since they can operate without being filtered through the prism of language and logic. I think she might say that this anxiety is coming from a part of my brain that knows me better than my logical, analysing neocortex, and I should listen to it. I need to explore what images come to mind as I feel this anxiety and what is lurking in my sub-conscious.
Indeed, scientists have fount that there is one specific part of our brains that carries on subconsciously analysing a problem while our conscious brain is working on something else, and finally gives us the answer when we are not expecting it. This is why we sometimes get that “aha” moment while in shower or walking outside.
Aaron Beck, in developing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, described a series of “thinking traps” that people with anxious or overly pessimistic thought patterns tend to fall into. One common one is “catastrophising” or imagining that the worst will happen and we won’t be able to cope with it. I can quite easily catastrophise about all the options open to me and imagine them all ending in disaster, so that is probably not doing my anxiety levels any good! How likely are these disasters really? Well, they could happen, but I am probably more able to cope than I give myself credit for, and I am definitely spending more time focusing on potential disaster than potential joy. This is type two (logical) thinking going into overdrive and not really making any progress at all. There are just too many unknowns for type two to cope with.
And of course, the gurus of mindfulness (Thich Naht Han, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Danny Penman) would all say – just sit with it. Notice the anxiety, notice the sensations in your body and just allow them to be. Stop trying to solve it all! If you sit quietly, and focus on the present moment, instead of letting your mind run wild with all the things that could happen, things will sort themselves out and the right path will become apparent in it’s own time.
Perhaps I am over-analysing things! I have always liked a good theory, but I am not sure that they are really helping at the moment. Maybe I just need a holiday…