RAJ PERSAUD CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRIST
I play social tennis – a curious term as it usually refers to a game after which you spend the car journey home bitching about how terrible your doubles partner was. (If you are reading this Laura this doesn’t apply to you).
Being competitive I sign up for all the coaching I can get. Perhaps the most curious bit of advice one truly outstanding trainer once bestowed has also done more to improve my game than any other coaching tip. Admittedly the improvement has come more off the court than on it.
The instructor remarked after one gruelling game with her, where I was comprehensively trounced yet again, that the key difference between my game and that of a professional (I suspect there are many more differences than just this one but, hey, she was being kind) is that people who are really good at tennis simply make better decisions than I do. Like whether to approach the net or not, or if one should adjust the foot work for a deviating ball. ‘Winners basically make better decisions on the court than you do’ she remarked dryly.
I wonder now whether the very decision to take up tennis was a bad one…
This comment from the coach resonated because I recalled a similar phrase from the celebrated film
‘Touching the Void’
about an astonishing heroic mountaineer self rescue from a remote and dangerous Peruvian mountain. This true story follows how a remarkably tenacious climber crawled on their hands and knees out of a perilous crevasse and back down to safety, despite severe injuries, over several days.
The mountaineer recounted afterwards that the key to their remarkable survival against all the odds was that they always stuck to making decisions, even when the temptation was to give up and let events take their course. Staying alive appeared to boil down to the basic all encompassing directive of merely constantly making decisions, no matter what. It didn’t even matter so much if they were bad decisions the mountaineer ventured.
I am not sure he would be alive today to make this remark if
many of his decisions on that fateful climb were dire, but since his endurance is beyond question, I will let that slide for the moment. I think what he was getting at here was of a state of mind of being conscious of taking decisions, rather than merely letting your environment dictate your future. In other words ‘I decide to rest now briefly after which I will keep going,’ rather than, ‘this mountain is too tough I am going to stop’.
For example, whilst in the gym you may say to yourself, ‘Its time to stop running on this treadmill as I’m too exhausted to carry on’, whereas a more conscious decision making act is; ‘I am making a judgment to stop’. Being more aware that you are making a choice allows you to take more control and for example decide the other way – to push on. You can get a sense of this by consciously asking yourself – what is my decision?
The essence I want to focus on is the idea that in order to attain any difficult goal – be it losing weight, winning at sport, or surviving a fall down the side of a crevasse – the key secret ingredient appears to be the ability to make the right decisions. In particular, a sequence of good decisions. The longer the stretch of great choices continues, the more likely you are to be moving closer to your goal.
So how can we learn to make better decisions? From how to choose a partner better to developing a superior career? To grasp the skill of superior decision–making it’s perhaps useful to understand what psychological research in this area has so far uncovered.
Peter Muris and colleagues based at the Institute of Psychology at Erasmus University in The Netherlands have recently published a fascinating paper on this subject entitled ‘Impulsivity is associated with behavioral decision-making deficits’ in the journal
which probes this issue.
One of the essential problems with making decisions, the authors of this study point out, is that the research evidence is we tend to make judgments based on emotion rather than reason. And don’t the advertising industry realize this!
The difficulty then is that, even if we are trying to lose weight for example, we resolve what to eat based on feeling hungry, tired, angry or low, and we forget all those good resolutions we made when were more rational, and not so emotional, ie hungry, angry tired or low.
Another key conclusion the authors of this study focus on is that it’s not just our emotional state that seems to have the most impact on our decision-making but our anticipation of how
we are going to feel in the future
once we have made a choice. Developing a more accurate view of our future emotional states is therefore key to better decisions.
The reason we do the regretful thing is that we are poor predictors of how a present act is going to generate suffering in the future.
Improving predicting our future emotional states lies at the heart of superior decisions.
One possible way of achieving this is to review past judgements, particularly ones we feel now were bad ones. Why did we make that bad choice? Was it not because at the precise time we made it we believed it would make us feel good? Was not a massive problem with that is although it improved our mood at the time, in the end, over the longer term, it made us feel worse? What we should have done is consider more how we were going to feel in the future as opposed to how we were experiencing at that precise moment.
The essence of a bad decision is that it seemed a good idea at the time, but with hindsight it panned out to being not such a great plan. What will stop you using hindsight regret so much in your life is more future gazing, in particular, predicting how what you do right now is going to make you feel tomorrow.
In order to have a better today, imagine its tomorrow and you are now looking back on this decision, what are you going to feel about it then?
DR RAJ PERSAUD IS A CONSULTANT PSYCHIATRIST WORKING IN PRIVATE PRACTICE AND THE NHS AND IS AUTHOR OF SEVERAL BEST-SELLING BOOKS INCLUDING ‘THE MOTIVATED MIND’ PUBLISHED BY BANTAM PRESS