3 Reasons We Make Bad Decisions — And How To Reverse Them
Would you consider yourself an impulsive, rash decision-maker? Or an indecisive, mull-it-over-for-days kind of thinker? According to the father-son doctor duo, board-certified neurologist David Perlmutter, M.D., and internal medicine physician Austin Perlmutter, M.D., our decision making personalities aren't so absolute. There's a scientific reason we make bad decisions—and we actually have the power to optimize forward-thinking.
"The ability of the brain to make good and bad choices really relies on the prefrontal cortex in our brains," Austin tells me on the mindbodygreen podcast.
When our prefrontal cortex is optimized and up to speed, he says, we tend to make good, forward-thinking decisions. On the other hand, when our prefrontal cortex is disconnected from other parts of the brain (due to lifestyle factors, the Perlmutters say), that's when our decisions become rash and present-focused. So, whether you choose to eat an extra slice of cake, skip a morning workout, or buy a pair of pricey jeans, chances are there's a disconnection between your prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain that's influencing the impulsivity.
Now that you've had a mini science lesson about the prefrontal cortex, you should know that this disconnection isn't fixed. In fact, we have the ability to foster that connection again and make healthy, long-term-oriented decisions.
Here are the three main reasons we tend to make impulsive decisions, along with three strategies to help reverse the damage. According to the Perlmutters, the process requires some diligence but is relatively easy to maintain.
1. A lack of sleep
Ever wonder why you make careless decisions when you're overtired? Perhaps you reach for a sugary doughnut over whipping up a nutrient-dense bowl of oatmeal, or you skip out on a HIIT class in favor of watching TV on the couch. When you're sleepy, you tend to make decisions that give you instant gratification, and according to the Perlmutters, it has everything to do with that prefrontal cortex connection.
"When you get more sleep, that prefrontal cortex is going to be more active and it's going to be more firmly integrated with the amygdala," Austin explains. "And you can see that after one night of sleep deficit, the amygdala is more active and the prefrontal cortex-amygdala connection is decreased."
The deep and restorative sleep you've always dreamt about*
The solution here (which may sound obvious) is to get more sleep. However, the Perlmutters note that it's not as simple as getting in bed at an earlier time: "What stages of sleep are you deficient in? Are you getting enough REM sleep? Are you in a deep sleep, which is the time our glymphatic system is 'shampooing the brain?'" David says.
Austin agrees, as he notes, "Sleep is probably the single biggest intervention you can do. Getting a good night of sleep will set you up better than anything else."
2. Too much stress
Chronic stress seems to be the root cause of many health-related issues. And, according to the Perlmutters, it's super significant for this prefrontal cortex-amygdala disconnection.
"Periods of long stress are associated with a smaller prefrontal cortex," Austin explains. "In animal studies, they've shown that it actually shrinks the neurons in the prefrontal cortex, when animals are exposed to chronic stress." We know that stress isn't good for our mental health, but chronic stress is actually detrimental to our physical brain health as well.
In terms of a solution, we realize that simply saying, "Don't stress!" can be a stressful piece of advice in itself. That's why the Perlmutters offer actionable ways we can decrease our stress and anxiety: "Meditation and mindfulness can lower levels of stress," Austin continues. "Exercise can actually be a stress mitigation tool, and nature can actually be used to lower levels of stress. Going out into nature, even in an urban setting, for 20 or so minutes lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol."
So, in order to make better, informed decisions, you might want to get outside and move (even for 20 minutes!). A perfect excuse for an outdoor yoga session, if you ask us.
3. Inflammation levels
Ah, inflammation. That catchall, nebulous term we've come to know and avoid at all costs. We recognize that inflammation is generally "bad," but the Perlmutters explain just how it decreases our brain function.
They note that it's not just chronic inflammation that does the dirty work—even acute levels of inflammation are enough to influence our decision-making. "Inflammation changes our thinking kind of right away. It doesn't require years of exposure," Austin says. "When you induce inflammation, people's decision-making is compromised. They start looking at the world from a present-focused instant-gratification model as opposed to a long-term-oriented thinking style."
It's a dangerous cycle, they explain, because the more you make those present-focused decisions, the more you demonstrate unhealthy behaviors that increase inflammation. And the more inflammation you experience, the more impulsive decisions you'll make.
So, how does one escape that inflammatory cycle? The father-son duo encourages you to figure out what behaviors are at the root of your inflammation (note: There may be more than one!).
"Inflammation might be augmented by your poor sleep quality, by your dietary choices, by your lack of exercise, or by the level of stress in your life. However you get there, it tends to compromise your decision-making that leads you to make more impulsive decisions that continue then to foster inflammation," David explains.
That said, optimizing your eating and sleeping habits and the ways you cope with stress can, in turn, affect your levels of inflammation. As with most aspects of well-being, many factors are connected and dependent on each other, so even just one small change has the power to (quite literally) shift your thinking!