I reckon most of us like to think we make good decisions about what we believe – that is, ones that are based on good evidence and good reasoning, and which lead to true beliefs. Trouble is, there are people with quite different beliefs about God, morality and politics to what you or I believe, and they think their beliefs are right.
I’ve been doing some reading about the psychology and neuroscience of choice, and while I have only dipped my toe in the ocean of information on this topic, it is clear that most of us don’t make decisions nearly as logically as we might fondly think.
Different people, different minds
It’s an obvious truism that everyone’s different. So it’s no surprise to know that we all make decisions in slightly different ways. There are many different causes of the differences.
Differences in age, character, temperament and mood can strongly influence decisions (Refs 1 & 2), for example:
- emotions such as fear, anger or regret
- past experience
- how relevant we perceive a matter to be
- how much we wish to involve others
- our cognitive capacity – affected by our age, memory, tiredness, skills and impairment.
Our brains are very complex. Different, and sometimes contrary, processes in the brain can lead to different decisions. These contrary processes can be described in different ways.
- Perhaps the most important factors are two types of thinking – system 1, or intuitive thinking, which gives us fast, unconscious and emotion driven responses, and system 2, or analytical thinking, which is slower and more deliberative (Refs 2 & 4). We’ll look at these more in a moment.
- In the brain there is a valuation network which provides us with information on risks and rewards, and a cognitive control network which helps us maintain an overall goal (Ref 6).
- Some parts of our brain are oriented toward survival and anger, others are more creative and compassionate (Ref 13).
- Some people are maximisers – they try to make the optimal decision – while others are satisficers – they try to make a decision that is “good enough” (Ref 15).
- Some people tend to choose the immediate and obvious gain, while others tend to seek the long term best outcome (Ref 15).
- Most people are loss averse – we fear loss more than we welcome success. So we will generally make a conservative decision when considering gains, but will often take risks to avoid losses (Ref 4).
It seems that many of these are slightly different ways of saying the same thing.
Analytic and intuitive
Everyone uses a mix of analytical and intuitive thinking, with the mix varying in different circumstances, but some people are more likely to use analytical thinking and others are more likely to use intuitive thinking.
You might think that analytic thinking is the most reliable, and we should always try to use that mode of thinking to make careful, reasoned decisions, but it turns out the truth is more complex.
Analytic is good
Analytical thinking is best when we are facing a decision where we have all the information, have time to evaluate it and can work the issue through in a structured and systematic way. This is generally how science, the law, criminal investigations and historical study work.
Many people would benefit from being taught ways to better analyse information, e.g. do more formal analysis, train themselves to consider long term as well as short term outcomes, and encourage people to consider the opposite of their preferred choice (Ref 4).
Intuitive is good
But, perhaps surprisingly, intuitive thinking is more effective in some situations, and very necessary overall.
- Intuitive thinking is generally our first response, and many decisions are made this way. Some say all of our decisions are made intuitively and analytical thinking is only used to rationalise our intuitive decisions (Ref 11).
- Emotions (which form part of intuitive thinking) have been found to be required to make good decisions (Ref 7), and people who use only analytical thinking make some choices poorly (Refs 8, 14). People with impaired emotions, and thus using predominantly analytical thinking, make worse decisions in some situations where judgment is required (Ref 16).
- Unconscious (intuitive) thinking is better than analytical thinking for complex tasks. Apparently analytical thinking struggles if the information is complex and there is no obvious methodology for reaching a decision, and unconscious thinking uses different brain process which organise the information better (Ref 2).
- Intuitive thinking is often better when risks are involved, because it tends to focus on the big picture rather than get bogged down in information (Ref 4).
The brain uses a number of heuristics (rules of thumb or thinking shortcuts) to help make better and faster intuitive decisions. Heuristics may include (Refs 1 & 13):
- choose the most recognisable or familiar option;
- minimise negative emotion;
- make the decision that is easy to justify to oneself or others;
- retrieve the information from memory that is most readily available;
- anchoring and adjustment: start with an intuitive ballpark estimate and adjust until it feels satisfactory;
- reduce the likelihood of feeling regret later;
- choose an option that allows for later adjustment;
- evaluate just the most positive and negative aspects;
- if it works, trust it is right.
You might think these are very non-reasonable rules of thumb, but studies show that using heuristics gives better results for less effort than trying to analyse everything (Ref 1). For example, a study of doctors in a hospital emergency department showed that younger and less experienced doctors tended to make slower analytical decisions whereas the more experienced doctors made faster intuitive decisions using heuristics (Ref 4).
Both are necessary
For optimum decision making, both intuitive and analytical thinking are necessary. “Any kind of serious complex thinking requires both analytical and intuitive thought” (Ref 2). It seems that good decision-making generally involves three steps:
- Initially, rapid intuitive thinking will likely reach a result using unconscious heuristics. This may be all that is required for many decisions.
- Reflection using analytical thinking may lead us to modify our decision, though often analytical thinking may only be used to rationalise the intuitive decision. It may take discipline to use analytical thinking to genuinely review our initial instinctive choice.
- Having done further review, intuitive/emotional thinking may still be required to actually make the choice rather than keep on thinking, or perhaps over-thinking.
God and choice
So how do we make choices about belief in God?
Deciding whether God exists or not is clearly a complex, multi-faceted problem which seems to lack a clear decision process. Therefore, it seems to require a significant amount of intuitive thinking. If a person has an experience of the numinous or God, this will almost certainly be assessed using intuitive thinking.
But for many people, important aspects of their decisions (e.g. philosophical argument, scientific or historical evidence) are amenable to careful analysis, so analytical thought will also be useful.
It is therefore no surprise that analytical thinkers are more likely to be atheists (Ref 14) and religious believers are more likely to be intuitive thinkers.
I can’t help thinking that these discoveries about our thinking processes help explain why apparently reasonable people can disagree so strongly about religion (or politics or ethics).
Predominantly analytical thinkers will value their reasoning processes and often scorn intuitive thinking and personal experience. This makes them likely to be sceptical of things they can’t analyse, and to have less well-developed abilities to use intuitive thinking and heuristics to reach a choice in what is a complex matter. They may well stall and be unable or unwilling to reach a decision. Thus atheism or agnosticism may be a more attractive option for them. And yet if Jonathon Haidt is right (Ref 11), their analytical thinking is likely a post hoc rationalisation.
More intuitive thinkers may be more likely to make a decision based on emotion and experience, or to use a heuristic to cut through the complex issues and make a reasoned choice. Analytical thinking may help them work out some of the details, but may be less likely to lead them to change their choice. Theism, especially a particular religion, may be more attractive to them because it uses familiar heuristics and resolves questions for them.
Each side will find it difficult to understand the other. The atheists will tend to think the theists are irrational and the theists will tend to think atheistic thinking is truncated and simplistic.
Making a choice
If atheism is true, then it is doubtful we have the ability to change our choices, and the two sides will come their views according to their brain chemistry. But if theism is true, we are responsible for our choices and what leads up to them.
Since God’s existence remains a matter of argument, each of us would do well to be open to both intuitive and analytical thinking, to be willing to examine emotional biases and heuristics, and try to understand the opposite viewpoint better.
A personal conclusion
I think I am probably a fairly analytical person. I guess that’s why I write this blog and research topics like this. Yet against the odds, I am a christian. Some critics will argue that I too use analytical thinking to rationalise my intuitive decision – but if so, that is as true of them too!
I feel that the discoveries outlined here justify a mix of faith and reason which characterises christianity. I feel theistic belief is strengthened a little by all this, but I don’t doubt others will think differently.
- Decision Making: Factors that Influence Decision Making, Heuristics Used, and Decision Outcomes, Cindy Dietrich (PhD student in Educational Psychology).
- Understanding the Dynamics of Decision-Making and Choice, Bryony Beresford and Tricia Sloper (Social Policy Research Unit, University of York).
- How Does Our Brain Make Decisions?, Dr. Jon Warner, PhD (in Organizational Psychology).
- The Mechanics of Choice, Association for Psychological Science.
- How, and when, to make a decision, Bill Ridgers, journalist.
- Making Choices: How Your Brain Decides, Maia Szalavitz (neuroscience journalist).
- Decisions Are Emotional, not Logical: The Neuroscience behind Decision Making, Jim Camp.
- Thinking too much: introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions, TD Wilson, JW Schooler, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia.
- How Intuition and the Imagination Fuel “Rational” Scientific Discovery and Creativity: A 1957 Guide, Maria Popova.
- Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief, Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan and Religion and Reason, R. Douglas Fields, PhD, Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
- Jonathan Haidt on Moral Psychology interview on Social Science Bites; Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of religion, Jonathon Haidt, and Social intuitionism in Wikipedia.
- The Biology of Belief, Jeffrey Kluger in Time.
- Why Your Brain Needs God, Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg on the Brain and Faith and Faith Beyond the Frontal Lobes, Michael Gerson, and Andrew Newberg, Professor and Director of Research Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine.
- Analytical thinking vs. religion, Connor Wood (PhD student in the science of religion).
- Decision-making, Wikipedia.
- Neural substrates of decision making as measured with the Iowa Gambling Task in men with alexithymia, M Kano, M Ito, S Fukudo, Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine.