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The human brain processes information for decision-making using one of two routes: an intuitive system and a rational system (Epstein, 1994; popularized by Kahneman, 2011 as System 1 and System 2, respectively). The intuitive system is quick, impulsive, and operates with minimal effort, relying on emotions or habits to provide cues for what to do next, while the rational system is logical, analytical, deliberate, and methodical. Research in neuropsychology suggests that the brain can only use one system at a time for processing information (Darlow & Sloman, 2010) and that the two systems are directed by different parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is more involved in the rational system, and the basal ganglia and amygdala (more primitive parts of the brain, from an evolutionary perspective) are more involved in the intuitive system.

Intuitive Decision-Making

We tend to assume that the logical, analytical route leads to superior decisions, but whether this is accurate depends on the situation. The quick, intuitive route can be lifesaving; when we suddenly feel intense fear, a fight-or-flight response kicks in that leads to immediate action without methodically weighing all possible options and their consequences. Additionally, individuals can often make decisions very quickly because experience or expertise has taught them what to do in a given situation. As a result, they might not be able to explain the logic behind their decision and will instead say they just went with their “gut,” or did what “felt” right. Because they faced a similar situation in the past and figured out how to deal with it, the brain shifts immediately to the quick, intuitive decision-making system.

Rational Decision-Making

However, the quick route is not always the best decision-making path to take. When faced with novel and complex situations, it is better to process available information logically, analytically, and methodically. Someone may need to think about whether a situation requires serious thought prior to making a decision. It is especially important to pay attention to your emotions, because strong emotions can make it difficult to process information rationally. This response is why it’s often best to wait and address a volatile situation after emotions have calmed down. Intense emotions—whether positive or negative—tend to pull us toward the quick, reactive route of decision-making. Have you ever made a large “impulse” purchase that you were excited about, only to regret it later? This speaks to the power our emotions exert on our decision-making. Big decisions should generally not be made impulsively, but reflectively.

This text is adapted from OpenStax, Organizational Behavior. OpenStax CNX.

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