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The Cognitive Processes Behind Decision-Making

By: Niku Sedarat


Decision-making is one of the earliest challenges we encounter, even as young children. Chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Swimming pool or park? While these choices may seem unimportant, I'm certain that at some point, they felt nothing short of nerve-wracking. As we mature, we encounter even weightier decisions, ones that hold greater significance. Whether it's selecting the right college for you or deciding to distance yourself from toxic friends, decision-making is unquestionably difficult.

In essence, there are three distinct styles of decision-making: rational, emotional, and intuitive.

Intuitive decisions are the quick ones, the ones driven by gut feelings. They're made without much hesitation, often without the careful analysis of pros and cons. While they can be efficient, intuitive decisions are sometimes biased because they're heavily influenced by our past experiences. On the flip side, rational decisions follow a more logical process. They involve gathering information, weighing the pros and cons, and making a choice based on a thorough evaluation of the information at hand. While these decisions tend to be well-informed (hence the name "rational"), they can also be time-consuming, making them less efficient. Emotional decisions, as the name suggests, are based largely on our emotions and feelings. When we're happy or feeling sentimental, these decisions can be deeply fulfilling because they often align with our personal values and beliefs. However, extreme emotions like anger, jealousy, or euphoria can cloud our judgment and lead to decisions we might later regret.

The decision-making process itself involves a range of cognitive processes, starting with information processing. It begins with perception – taking in all the sensory information from what we see, hear, smell, or touch. Then comes attention, helping us filter out the noise and focus on what really matters in a given situation. All this information is stored in our memory, from short-term to long-term. After we've processed this information, we move on to problem-solving, where we seek solutions to challenges or dilemmas. It's a crucial part of decision-making because decisions often involve problem-solving. Finally, we wrap up the decision-making process with a risk assessment. This step is vital because it forces us to consider the potential consequences, both positive and negative, of our choices. It involves estimating the likelihood of different outcomes and their potential impact.

The different decision-making styles—intuitive, rational, or emotional—come into play at different stages of this cognitive process. Moreover, your decision-making style isn't fixed; it can adapt depending on the complexity of the problem you're facing.

At the end of the day, no single decision-making style is universally superior. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and their effectiveness often depends on the specific situation at hand. The key to becoming a skilled decision-maker lies in understanding these different styles, recognizing when to apply them, and, most importantly, being flexible in our approach when tackling difficult decisions. After all, life rarely presents us with direct, straightforward challenges, so the ability to adapt our decision-making style is an invaluable skill that can lead to more balanced, responsible, and fulfilling decisions.

Certain decisions can bring up distressing emotions so it is important to seek professional mental health support or seek out the support of a local crisis or helpline. Check out Unité’s resources to find support systems that are specific to your needs and wants! You are not alone!


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