Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Ability to Choose Well


Radiolab has become one of my favorite podcasts in recent years with its variety of interesting stories on science.  Of particular interest to me have been the various episodes that have looked into the workings of the human mind.  One such episode entitled How Much is Too Much? looked at how our ability to make healthy decisions is greatly compromised when our minds are trying to hold on to too much information at once.  On the podcast they interviewed Baba Shiv of Stanford University who conducted a simple experiment which illustrates this phenomenon.  In the experiment subjects were asked to memorize a number and then walk down the hall to another room to recite it.  Unbeknownst to the subjects some were given a 2 digit number while others were given a 7 digit number.  But on their way to the other room they passed by a person sitting at a table who offered, as thanks for participating in the experiment, either a piece of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.  Those who were trying to remember a seven digit number were more than twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake as those who had memorized the two digit number.

The reason given for this phenomenon is that the rational part of the brain that would keep a person making healthy decisions is greatly compromised once a number committed to memory is seven or more digits.  When that happens the emotional mind takes over which is more concerned with immediate gratification.  This phenomenon can be seen in any area where humans are offered more than 7 choices at once because human working memory is only capable of holding up to seven numbers or ideas at once (this is one reason that phone numbers don't exceed 7 digits).

I can't help but wondering if this further illustrates why trying to live a deliberately simple and uncluttered life might not simply be better in financial terms but also concerning the emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of a persons life.  It also is no wonder why stress often creates such a hospitable environment for sins of the flesh.

Check out the podcast when you get a chance...

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