Let Them Eat Cake: Understanding How our Minds Make Decisions

The emotional brain

“I ate a cookie,” my husband confessed.

Normally, that’s not much to feel guilty about: anyone who’s seen us with a pint or two of ice cream knows we’re hardly militant about our sugar intake. But, during Lent my husband and I remember our Catholic roots and attempt to adhere to the ancient tradition of self-sacrifice. As sweets are our main weakness (and often our primary source of calories), every year we travel the well-worn path of optimistic resolutions and try to abstain from eating sugary treats during the 40 days preceding Easter. Sounds pretty easy, right? After all, it’s only a few weeks. Well, if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then ours is also littered with the candy wrappers of years past. This time, however, we had been determined to succeed.

So, what tempted my husband to plunge, head first, off the no-sugar wagon? It’s a rickety wagon, certainly, and prone to breaking down, but we’re 5 weeks into our (mostly) sweet-free fast, and there’s only a week left until Easter (and all the bunny-shaped marshmallows that come with it). It had to have been something exceptional, something delectable, some special treat no mere mortal could resist.

“It was a store-bought cookie, and I may have had 4…or 6,” he admitted.

How could any store-bought cookie trigger a binge now, so close to the finish line? He explained. It was 4pm on a Friday afternoon. A plastic box of cookies (leftover from lab meeting) had been resting all day, patiently, on the desk adjacent to his. The boss came in, blustery, distressed about some recently discovered discrepancies in the data. Time was spent discussing, thinking, solving problems. Cookies were consumed- by both parties.

Now, what sparked this temporary lapse of judgment? Was it boss-induced stress? Cookie-eating camaraderie? Or did the mere state of being preoccupied with non-cookie matters cause his brain to simply bypass the intention to resist temptation? This is not an uncommon experience- poor dietary choices are often made during stressful times (I know I’m not the only one who turns to Ben & Jerry for comfort before an exam). In fact, it seems as if it’s always harder to make rational, logical decisions when under pressure.

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss this strange phenomenon in a recent edition of ‘Radiolab’. If you haven’t tuned into this radio program yet, make sure to schedule some uninterrupted time with your ipod, because once you start listening, you’re not going to be able to stop.

In the ‘Choices’ episode, they describe an unusual psychology experiment where researchers attempt to understand the interplay between the rational brain (the one telling you not to eat the cookie) and the emotional brain (the one saying, “Mmmm cookies are good”).

In this experiment, subjects were asked by a researcher to memorize a set of numbers (between two and seven digits long), and repeat them to another researcher waiting in a different room down the hall. To the people in the study, it seemed as if their task was merely to remember and relay information. The researchers, however, had something more devious in mind.

Before the subjects were able to repeat their number to the second researcher, they were interrupted by a woman bearing two different treats: a choice of gustatory tokens of appreciation for participating in the study. They were presented with a thick wedge of chocolate cake and a bowl of fruit salad, and asked to decide between the two.

Here’s the funny part: nearly all of the people who had memorized a 6 or 7 digit number chose the chocolate cake. The shorter the number a person had been given to remember, the more likely they were to choose the healthier fruit option. Apparently, trying to remember a long number was enough to overload the rational brain (the one that would normally convince you to make the healthy choice). When the rational brain is occupied, the emotional brain is free to do what it wants (and it wants chocolate cake).

This constant struggle between the rational and emotional brain is essential for regulating decision-making. In fact, if the emotional part of the brain is damaged, the decision-making process can be derailed completely. Without emotions to influence choices, the mind can get trapped continuously evaluating every facet of a possible decision.

So, what can we learn from a study like this? Well, if it takes so very little for the rational brain to be overwhelmed, it’s probably best to refrain from making important decisions when your mind is preoccupied. Likewise, keeping cookies around during stressful situations is not the best strategy for avoiding sugar. Are you wondering, now, how to get rid of the sweets that are biding their time in your pantry? Bring them into work. My husband will eat them.



~ by Meghan on April 5, 2009.

6 Responses to “Let Them Eat Cake: Understanding How our Minds Make Decisions”

  1. This post is great! And, although it leaves me extremely worried about my inability to avoid sweets, at least now I have something to blame. The mere thought of avoiding sweets stresses me out, thus resulting in a major binge, which stresses me out more, resulting in another binge… and you get the point. Sigh. Clearly in a battle of the brains, my emotional brain wins every time… now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some m&m’s calling my name.

  2. So I can blame all of my (recent) bad decisions on the stress of trying to finish my Ph.D.?


  3. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how humans make decisions. Specifically, on how we determine whether a claim is true or false. For example, many people in the US hold this belief that Barack Obama is not a US-born citizen and that he is a Muslim. I have evaluated both of these claims and concluded that they are false, based on available evidence and the use of my rational thinking process. Why did these other people reach the same conclusion? Is it because they are thinking only emotionally? Are they simply so dogmatically tied to their ideal image of a white, Christian, conservative male that they blind their rational minds?

    (See the following link…if your stomach can take the inanity)

    So when it comes to correct evaluation of truth claims, what is the “proper” balance for rational versus emotional thinking that is most likely to allow a human to arrive at the correct conclusion of the claim? In my cursory and neophytic philosophy, I think that the rational brain should be mostly, if not completely, employed. The emotional brain seems like it would be useful as a “tie-breaker” perhaps, or for evaluating claims that are based on emotion (e.g., John beats his wife).

  4. Great post! I think there is also something to the idea that if we’ve done a mentally taxing task successfully, our brains seem to think we’ve earned a treat, whether that be sweets, or in my case, a very bad for you chicken pot pie from the freezer section of the grocery store.

  5. So wait… I usually choose fruit over sweets… does this mean I don’t use my brain? 😦

  6. Maybe you have a powerful rational mind! but, we knew that already 🙂

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