Decision Time
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Decision Time • Posted: Oct 28, 2012 15:56:01Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

We are now little more than a week away from election day in the U.S. The pressure is on us all to make a decision. It strikes me that one of the most interesting questions to ask is not who will win but who will make that choice and why.

Pollsters, demographers, and political pundits have categorized our citizenry along a host of dimensions from age to sex to race to education to type of employment or not to annual income to region of the country to religious affiliation. Political candidates, on the other hand, take those categorizations and try to imagine what kind of logic and emotional appeal will convince the majority of each segment, first to vote, and then to vote for them and their party. To say the least, it's an inexact science. But why?

The answer is agency. Each individual, voter or not, acts according to their beliefs as to what works and what doesn't in their world in pursuit of what they think is important. The science of categorizing potential voters according to their modes of thought is not well developed. In fact, it borders on the politically incorrect to even suggest that there are such categories, though such categories are used daily by all of us. They include summations like "asshole", "bigot", "jerk", "narcissist", "penny-pincher", "crook", "deadbeat", "bleeding heart", "war monger", "paranoid", "imperialist", "elitist", "fool", and the various astrologically defined personality types. But, are there a few, more precisely meaningful summations, that could help us better understand how to work with each other to accomplish collective goals, while at the same time help us to protect our cherished free agency in pursuit of personal goals?

There would seem to be some help for us within education research regarding "learning styles". And, neuroscience also offers us help with its conclusions that what happens in the brain during decision making differs across different "types" of individuals. So, what are those differing "styles" and "types" and how do they differ?

People take in information through filters. Some things get attention while other things do not. Researchers refer to that filtering as the "structure of attention". At a second level, information is parsed, relegated to categories of previous understanding such as "I know what a chair is. That is a chair". When new information does not readily fit into previously understood categories, a situation known as "cognitive dissonance" occurs. Individuals pause and must decide anew how to proceed. It is at that point, individual agency comes into play. Neuroscientists have come up with the term "polling" to describe the state of limbo wherein a decision is made relative to not readily categorized new information. Within "polling", different parts of the brain "argue" or "compete" for dominance. Hunger centers, thirst centers, pain centers, sleep centers, fear centers, pleasure centers, pattern completion centers, goal oriented centers, anxiety centers, curiosity centers, imaginative centers, planning centers, compassion and empathy centers, memory centers, various centers of emotion, all "argue" for dominance in determining what will happen next. Each individual differs in how strong a voice, how well developed, and how easily activated their unique competing brain centers are.

To say the least, we are not all the same. And, as it turns out, which parts of our brain gain dominance at any particular time is highly dependent upon the social and environmental context within which we find ourselves. Alone at night our minds tend to wander widely. But, assaulted by crowds and media in daylight, wholly different "colors of polling" take place within our brains. We are more anxious, more suspicious, less charitable, more defensive, take less time to think things through, are less open to exploration of the unknown, etc., etc. Teachers know a hungry child does not learn well and neither does a worried or fearful child, nor an angry or hateful child, nor a child rehearsed to have slogans and mantras repeating endlessly in their minds.

The message for political candidates would seem to be: control the context of interactions with potential voters to quiet fearful or antagonistic feelings. Rally those parts of their brains that might be open to or sympathetic to your concerns. And finally, create a sense of commonality and responsibility toward one another that both can act upon.

On the other hand, the message to voters would seem to be: be skeptical. Learn to see which brain centers are normally active during a candidate's decision making trials. Is a fearful or greedy need to dominate usually in ascendance? Or, is a respectful openness to new ways to look at things in ascendance? And which mode of decision making will likely yield more comfortable, more sustainable, less costly, and more interesting and opportunity filled outcomes for all of us?

We all function more relaxed, creative, and productive in a safe but fun Mardi Gras type atmosphere than in a regimented, highly managed, impoverished concentration camp atmosphere. What kind of social and physical environment we will all share in the coming years rests on what type of mindset dominates at polls during this election. Will fear, resentment, and greed dominate our future? Or, will confident but practical openness halo our futures?

May apprehension and lassitude never keep you from triumphantly "seizing the day" to help determine our collective future.

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009