Dossier: Decisions

Already made a decision today?

In a world where anything is possible, deciding what we want is often the biggest challenge of all. Our brain saves us time by making many of these everyday decisions on auto pilot.

Text Nicole Krättli, photo: Danil Nevsky / Stocksy United

Should I wear a red or blue shirt? Should I plan a skiing holiday or would I prefer a city break? Should I get married? Should I get divorced? Do I want children? Brain researchers have found that people make over 20,000 decisions a day. And the decision-making process usually follows the same pattern: We identify the need to make a decision, consider our options, search for information to help us and evaluate this information. Only then do we make, implement and then review a decision. We store this experience in our brain and incorporate it from now on in our decision-making processes.


Unconscious action, conscious reflection

“Of course, we only experience a fraction of the decision-making process consciously,” explains decision-making researcher Daniel Hausmann-Thürig from the University of Zurich. Decisions can be compared to a hike. “Ideally, we select a destination, prepare, choose a direction and set off. If it’s something we do often, a decision-making scenario may not arise at all.” However, as soon as we hit an obstacle, we need to take action. “We have to consciously think about how to overcome the obstacle and thus switch automatically from unconscious action to conscious reflection”, explains Hausmann-Thürig.

The 10/10/10 method – Ask yourself the following question: How will I feel about the decision in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years?
Toss a coin – If you hope that the coin lands on decision A, you’ve already unconsciously made a decision.

Stumbling blocks on the decision-making path

What we decide depends not only on the situation but also on our personality. The decision-making process is influenced, for example, by whether a person is willing to try new things, fearful, a risk-taker, a perfectionist or frugal. Decision-making expert Hausmann-Thürig says that there are countless stumbling blocks on the way to making a good decision: “Problems include distorted perception, misjudgements, flawed thinking and incorrect risk assessments.” But is there such a thing as free will at all or is everything just an illusion? Researchers like neuropsychologist Benjamin Libet have certainly put forward this theory. Thirty years ago, he measured a brain signal that preceded conscious decisions by several hundred milliseconds. He therefore concluded that free will is just an illusion when it comes to unconscious decision-making processes. “Much of what happens in our brain is routine. However, we can always stop and ask ourselves what we’re actually doing”, says Hausmann-Thürig. In actual fact, we often spend too much time overthinking decisions today. “We have to choose between so many options and want to do it as quickly and as well as possible. It can all be too much,” he says. The researcher therefore advises taking time out to stop our flow of thoughts. Instead we should take time to focus on what we really need and our life goals: what is really important to me?

Try it out – Live for three to five days as if you’ve already made the decision. See how this makes you feel.
80th birthday – When making the decision, imagine it’s your 80th birthday and you’re looking back on the choices you’ve made.