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The problem with choice

The problem with choice


Important decisions such as whether to promote a junior assistant or to leave one firm for another, are made on a rational basis, aren't they? Not as much as you would think, says Dr Bob Murray

We all make choices and decisions every day – on strategy, on client matters, on family and relationship issues. Some we make unthinkingly and others we put a great deal of thought into. We assume that those that we think most about – when we weigh the pros and cons carefully and ‘come to’ a decision on – are the best.

Strangely enough, from a common-sense point of view, this is wrong. The unthinking instantaneous, gut reactions are some 60 per cent more accurate. This holds true even in the case of the advice you give to clients.

We think we’re acting rationally and that our suggestions are based on fact, precedence, evidence. But all available research shows that this assumption is mistaken.

In terms of rationality we humans are a disaster — we’re not programmed for it. Chimps are much better, in strategy games where the outcome depends on logical reasoning chimps win 90 percent of the time. This is because, compared to a chimpanzee, we are defenseless. Unlike chimps we need to make instant choices; we don’t have time to rationalise. As Rabbie Burns rightly wrote: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!

How we make choices, whether to merge, to stay or leave a particular firm, to change baristas, to collaborate with another partner, or to select a junior lawyer for promotion doesn’t happen the way we thought it did even a year or so ago. In fact, the process of coming to a decision is something we’re only just beginning to understand.

As a scientist specialising in both clinical psychology and behavioral neurogenetics I have a problem with traditional ways of viewing concepts like ‘choice’, or for that matter ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’. Let me explain.


To the average non-scientist saying that someone has a ‘choice’ to make involves making an assumption regarding that person’s conscious decision-making: that they acted on the basis of facts and logical reasoning about their own interests or the interests of those that they care about.

The problem, as modern research has demonstrated, is that no choice is wholly or even partially rational. Rather we’re programmed by biology, habit, context or experience to act in a particular way. We’re programmed to almost instantaneously choose the option that our system decides, on the basis of habit, knowledge, genetics and a range of other factors, will keep us safest.

As a ton of research shows, I do my ‘logical’ reasoning regarding any decision afterI’ve made it. And the drivers leading to the choice I made have nothing to do with ‘reason’.

A ‘decision’ having been unconsciously made, we nd facts and reasons to support it so that we view it as necessary and the right thing to do in the circumstances. This is true even when we are using big data. Psychologists call this process ‘confirmation bias’.

The turning point in the science of decision-making came with the discovery of behavioral economics in the 1980s. We found that in terms of their economic behaviour people do not always act rationally and frequently do things which are against their own interests. Something was going on which had nothing to do with conscious reasoning. With the development of more sophisticated methodologies and technologies for observing the brain and the other decision areas of the body (there are five that we know of: our individual DNA, the brain, the gut, the heart and the skin) we arrived at a rather shocking conclusion.

We discovered that we humans do not make decisions based on fact or reason. The most recent research suggests that perhaps we can’t.

The decision is ‘determined’ by a mixture of biological and psychic (contextual or environmental and experiential) factors. These include, but are not limited to, our:

  • genetics – we are genetically programmed to favor some actions over others. Voting conservative or liberal (no capitals) is a case in point.
  • gut – the state of our gut microbiota
  • neurobiology – particularly the capacity of our brain to process certain emotions and external and internal stimulil beliefs and assumptions – we have no conscious awareness of 50 percent of these
  • habitual reactions – our automatic responses such as applying the breaks at a red light, or getting angry with a colleague for no obvious reason
  • childhood experiences – a major part of our psychic programming
  • context – the genes that drive behaviour and emotion are highly contextual in their expression
  • emotions – particularly those relating to fear, reward and relationships
  • neurochemistry – the ‘uptake’ level of testosterone, dopamine, oxytocin, glutamate and cortisol by specialized neurons (brain cells)
  • drive for status – status equals safety need for supportive relationships – relational support is one of our primary needs (along with food, shelter and the drive to procreate)
  • need for certainty
  • level of stress – we are more unethical under stress
  • personality – which is fluid and highly contextual
  • mental health – especially any personality disorders we may su er from such as psychopathy, narcissism etc. but also depression and other mood disorders
  • level of relative wealth – those who have less relative wealth are far more likely to act against their own best interests. Brexit and electing Trump are classic examples.

You’ll notice that conscious thought is nowhere in there. And the moment that we realise that every decision has a chain of causality in which conscious ‘will’ is not a part, we lose any real meaning to the term ‘rational choice’.


Take the example of your recommending Tom, a junior lawyer who has worked with you for some time for promotion. You think your decision is based on Tom’s application, legal knowledge or winning way with clients. He may have all of these, but the decision to actually recommend him may be based on none of them. It’s more likely that you ‘decided’ to recommend Tom because of the things you have in common, or his height (the taller he is the more likely you will recom- mend him), his voice (we trust deeper voices more), what you had for breakfast and when (the glutamate e ect) and the fact that in some sense you see him as part of your sup- port network. The work ethic etc. is, literally, an ‘after-thought’.

Most scientists have come to the view that the idea that we have ‘free will’ – in the sense that we consciously determine our actions and decisions – is wrong.

All our legal, judicial, ethical and political systems – which all depend very largely on that concept – need to be reimagined. Conscious choice is probably, as most recent research indicates, an illusion.

So, when Donald Trump says that he trusts his gut more than the advice of his experts he may be onto something important about human cognition. And when he makes decisions that are so obviously counter-factual and so obviously unreasoning he may only be doing what we all do (only not so obviously and outrageously) in our client advice and recommendations.



Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest in legal and professional services