One Way to Make Better Decisions: Rely on Your Imagination More Than Your Willpower

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Photo: Elena Elisseeva/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Maybe you can relate to this particular struggle: When the alarm goes off in the morning, some people use the snooze button for five more sweet, sweet minutes of sleep. I use it for 30 of them, give or take. I gorge on the snooze button. It’s gotten so bad that I now set my first alarm for much earlier than I actually need to be awake, just so I can keep on snoozing a little while longer. Yes, I know I really should be getting up and starting the day and all that, but it’s so hard when you’re just so cozy.

Which might actually be the root of the problem: I’m thinking about the trade-offs all wrong. According to a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science, the key to making better decisions may be to think of your life as a series of chain reactions, with each choice setting a new sequence in motion: Hitting snooze just one more time means ten more minutes of sleep means not having enough time for breakfast before running out the door means spending the morning cranky and hungry.

In the first part of the study, the authors gave participants a choice between receiving a certain amount of money within the next day or a larger sum in a month’s time. For some of the subjects, the decision was framed just like that, as two separate and unrelated outcomes. For others, though, each choice was presented as a series of connected events: Take the smaller amount now and zero dollars in a month, or no money now and the bigger chunk of change down the road. Members of the second group, the researchers found, were more likely to hold out for the better deal.

Brain scans from a subsequent experiment offered some insight as to why that might be the case. When the study authors presented the same set of options to another group of volunteers, they discovered that the way the choice was framed affected the subjects’ brain activity: Those presented with a simple this-or-that choice showed more activity in areas associated with willpower, while those asked to consider a sequence of events had more activity in areas linked to imagination.

Which, in turn, means that the latter option just might be a more effective way of getting you to consider the consequences of what you’re about to do. As study co-author Adrianna Jenkins, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, put it in a statement: “Willpower might enable people to override impatient impulses after they’re formed, whereas imagining future consequences might affect the formation of the impulses themselves.” It’s something that might be worth trying for my fellow compulsive snoozers, if you can get your imagination up and running that early in the morning.

To Make Better Decisions, Rely on Imagination Over Willpower