Deciding Without Thinking
The original premise of this site is that it possible to actually make better decisions. That’s why I called it called “On Deciding . . . Better” to begin with. After all, we are the agents responsible for our actions, so who else is responsible for making better choices? I’ve written about the false promises made by Decision Theory which asserts that by making choices can be made more rational, the decisions can be more successful. The problem isn’t the mathematicl basis of Decision Theory, it’s the problem with implementing it when people actually need to make decisions in the real world. There are valuable habits and tools in the Decision Theory literature, but it’s clear to me that when our brains are engaged in rapidly making decisions, we generally are not aware of the decision process. If we’re not aware of the decisions, then those deliberative executive function mechanisms can’t be brought online as they are being made.
Perceptual Decision Making
This is the Kanizsa Triangle, created by the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa in 1955. I like it as an example because it is so simple and yet so stable. The brain creates the contours of the second white triangle. When I first heard this kind of illusion being called a “perceptual choice”, I rejected the notion. After all, a choice is an act of will, of mental agency.
Yet calling this “a perceptual choice” makes a lot of sense from a brain mechanism point of view. A simple set of shapes and lines is projected on the retina and relayed back through the visual cortex and the surrounding cortical areas. That part of the brain makes an unshakable choice to interpret the center of the figure as containing a triangle. Similarly, seeing the face of my son, a different area of cortex decides who it is. Further, circuits are activated with all kinds of associated information, some brought up into consciousness, others not, but just ready to be used when needed.
Are We Responsible for Perceptual Choice?
If perceptual choice is like most other choices, like choosing a breakfast cereal or a spouse, it seems I’m advocating abandoning a lot of perceived responsibility for one’s own’s actions. It seems that we walk through the world mostly unaware of how perceptions are constructed and don’t have access to why we act the way we do. Actions are based on perceptions that were chosen without awareness in the first place. And it goes without saying that we have no responsibility for the perceptions and actions of everyone around us. Their brains, wired mostly in the same way as ours, chose how to perceive our words and our acts.
It seems to me that to make better decisions there have to be rather deep changes in those perceptual brain processes. Any decision tools have to become deeply embedded in how our brains work, any rules to guide how we perceive, choose or act lie as deep habits in those automatic functioning circuits of the brain. Some, like the the Kanizsa Triangle are in the very structure of the brain and can’t be changed. Others are strongly influenced by experience and deepened by practice.