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Science
THE ART OF INDECISION
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Decisions are hard to make in a world of ever-increasing choice.
Tuesdays 20 and 27 April 2004 11.00-11.30am 

Life is all about the choices we make. But what happens when you’re trapped in the headlights of indecision? A light-hearted programme for ditherers who want to become decisive, presented by Ian Peacock.

Snake Eyes

Everyone makes thousands of decisions every day. Some even consciously. But most are beyond our awareness. Generally, there’s a hierarchical structure to the human brain, with the lower ranks, at the base of the skull, taking care of the mundane stuff like breathing and walking.

Emotional management centres like the amygdala take care of hunches and instinct, whereas answering the really important questions like “what should I order for lunch?”, are left to the CEO neurones up in the cerebral cortex - the knobbly bit of brain just above your eyebrows.

Whilst most people won’t stand around contemplating the alternatives to, say, running for your life from a charging rhino, others are crippled by indecision over more mundane matters. Affluent western society has flooded us with choices and this has left our brains struggling to make the right decision.

Take a simple trip to a coffee bar. Thanks to the big, modern cafe chains, what was once milk and two sugars is now at least a staggering 1048 possible variations on an espresso.

In these programmes, Ian Peacock, a man possibly more troubled by indecision than Hamlet, meets scientists and psychologists in an attempt to develop some life-changing decision-making skills. “The trouble with our brains”, says decision researcher Peter Ayton from the Society for Judgement and Decision Making, “is that they were designed to survive in the relatively simple environment of the African Savannah, thousands of years ago”.

Back then it was hunter and hunted, (presumably with fewer beverage options). So to cope now we have to become skilled thinkers – we have to rationalise our decisions or risk making bad ones.

At New York University, neurobiologist Paul Glimcher has isolated two molecules that are the most likely culprits in the decision process – acetylcholine and noradrenalin. One increases brain activity, the other decelerates it and when the two fire off together, the dithering commences.

Could controlling these neuro-chemicals be the key to decisiveness? Perhaps the answer is cultural?

A recent study found that Japanese and American businessmen made different decisions based on their cultural and social mores rather than on business models.

Whilst Sports psychologists like Debbie Crews help athletes to balance their brain in order to better control the backhand, the penalty kick or the golf swing.

It’s only when they stop listening to the analytical left brain and allow themselves to go with the flow of the instinctive right brain that they’ll find the place-kicking nirvana reached by players like David Beckham and Alan Shearer.
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Programme 1

There’s a whole science of decision-making out there – professors no less, being paid good money to teach people how to make decisions. Sounds daft? Well, as Ian Peacock discovers in this first foray, the modern world is so full of choice that us humans simply can’t cope anymore.

The result is we choose not to choose.

In a world of high-street fashion, most of us wear black. Give us 30 flavours of ice-cream and 75 percent of people go for chocolate or vanilla. And given the option of twenty potential mates, it seems looks win out over personality nearly every time. Now you know why we need those professors. Life really is a bowl of cherries, but which one do you eat first?


Listen again Listen again to Programme 1
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Programme 2

Armed only with a golf club, Ian meets a host of decision-making experts who’ll lead him decisively along life’s multiple choice highway, helping him to overcome a charging rhinoceros, the memories of his school sports report, the pitfalls of buying a house and even the supposedly difficult decision of whether or not to eat a double chocolate muffin. Confused? Then listen on Tuesday or click below...

Listen again Listen again to Programme 2
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