From the moment you wake up in the morning, you are faced with choices. While some may be more important than others, you are consistently exercising your decision-making abilities.
On an average day, you decide what to eat, whether or not to hit the gym, how to handle difficult encounters, what relationships to invest your time and energy into, and a host of other situations that require you to make choices.
Normally, you have a great deal of control over what choices to make. Think about it—no one forces you to eat donuts over fruit for breakfast or to watch Netflix instead of working out. But even though you are in the driver’s seat and utterly capable of deciding the best decision for yourself, it isn’t always easy and sometimes, for reasons that aren’t obvious at the time, you may make poor choices.
And so the vicious cycle begins: first, you make a poor decision, usually against your better judgment; next, you feel guilty about it, beating yourself up for not having more willpower or adhering to your personal needs. Discouragement and self-defeat then follow. With such a negative mindset, it’s no wonder it can be so difficult to get back on track after a setback.
At a time of year when many people are working hard to stick to life goals and resolutions, the guilt of making a poor choice is perhaps heightened. People want to meet the goals we set for ourselves so then why do we self-sabotage?
Dive into the psychology behind choice-making to fully understand the answer to this question, and learn how to stay on track with your goals this year.
In 1996, psychiatrist William Glasser developed Choice Theory, arguing that we have direct control over the acting and thinking components of our behavior. By being in control of how you act and think, you indirectly influence your feelings and physiology.
These four components (i.e., acting, thinking, feeling, physiology) consistently work together. If you change one of them, the rest will change accordingly.
For example, say one of your goals is to get into shape—more specifically, you want to be able to run a mile without stopping. If you are feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, according to Choice Theory, actually doing something about it is the most effective course of action. Despite your exhaustion, choosing to walk the one-mile course as a first step in reaching your goal, may lead to:
- More positive thinking (e.g., I’m proud of myself for taking this first step or Good for me for taking action) resulting in
- Feeling better emotionally (e.g., accomplished, satisfied, or happy)
- Improved physical health (e.g., reduced cortisol levels and lower blood pressure).
In short, you choose what you think and do, resulting in how you feel. Taking proper action produces your thoughts and in turn influences how you feel. When you make choices that bring you one step closer to meeting your goals, it leads to more positive thinking and enhanced emotional and physical well-being. Allow this to serve as motivation to continually take action to meet your goals.
Cognitive Control and Value-Based Decision Making
Researchers believe both cognitive control and value-based decision-making play a role in why humans make the choices we make, including why we sometimes choose what we know to be bad for us (i.e., self-sabotage).
A 2012 study lead by Jan Glascher found that the brain makes decisions based on two separate networks:
- The valuation network, a part of the brain that provides you with information in your environment that you deem rewarding.
- The cognitive control network, which helps you meet your goals without being bogged down by distractions.
While the valuation network is a helpful aide in decision- making, it can also provide the brain with unnecessary and distracting information.
In a 2012 Time article, Ralph Adolphs, a co-author of the study, used grocery shopping as an example to help explain how the process works. In summary, while your valuation network directs your attention to the items you want to buy as well as distractions (i.e., the things you see and want to buy but know you shouldn’t), cognitive control works to ensure you strike a balance. It enables you to reach the checkout counter without a cart full of Oreo’s and Pop Tarts. If you have a goal in mind while grocery shopping, such as buying only fruits and vegetables, cognitive control will allow you to reach it while ignoring any distractions.
According to Adolphs, both networks need to be in balance in order to properly work together, allowing you to make the best decisions.
Examining Your Impulse Control
But how can you tell if these regions of the brain are working efficiently?
One way is to examine your impulse control. The more you can ignore distractions and temptations (cognitive control) and make decisions that carry long-term benefits (valuation network) versus short-term rewards, the more likely you’ll be to stick to your goals.
Fortunately, each time you exercise your ability to exert cognitive control and value-based decision-making, you strengthen these regions of the brain, making it progressively easier to make the right choice, which sets you on a forward path to reaching your goals.
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