A few days ago, I finished a fascinating book titled “How We Decide.” Recently published by baby-faced Rhodes Scholar extraordinaire Jonah Lehrer, the work presents a multidisciplinary exploration of all the factors that influence the decisions, significant and superfluous, that we make every day. The human understanding of this process, Lehrer explains, began with the Platonic image of a charioteer struggling to control two bucking horses – the rational sphere constantly monitoring its emotional counterpart. Lehrer threads this duality through his discussion of the historical events – the Enlightenment, modern brain imaging – which have altered the common perception of the balance of power between the charioteer and horses.
In the end, Lehrer hesitates to recommend an “ideal” blend of rationality and emotion that we should apply to every decision. Instead, using an argument based in neuroanatomy that I’ll leave to CGSC 110, he distinguishes between big and small decisions: for those involving few variables, he recommends careful, rational consideration. But for larger ones, say, which college to choose, he advises what I’ll call conditioned emotion — ultimately a “gut” decision based on variables internalized from experience (experts say, according to the author, that the human brain is incapable of consciously considering more than seven factors at once). And Lehrer reminds us that, in the end, a lot of decisions are out of our control.
If you were to rewind the clock about one year, you would find me flipping between some college handbook and the nearly biblical Fiske guide while taking mental notes on the minutia of numerous institutions. “Oh wow, a 7:1 student ratio,” I observed, storing that little piece of information away. “How interesting, a 48/52 male/female ratio,” I noticed, trying to make a permanent mental note. How else could I even begin to make such a huge decision without a carefully conditioned consideration of every possible variable?
I like to think of myself as a thoroughly rational person, and the idea of making such a major decision based on anything less than pure logic seemed utterly foolish. But with so many excellent schools out there and literally hundreds of variables floating about, deciding on a favorite seemed impossible. I assured myself that having internalized so many facts and figures, I would wake up one glorious morning in some sparking state of epiphany.
But the leaves began to fall, and no such day arrived. Many advised me to go with my instincts — they reminded me that I was considering a group of strong schools and that it would be hard to make a poor decision. With early decision deadlines looming, what I failed to consider was that, as the statistics faded away, what remained would be visceral emotions and gut feelings — ones I had actively fought to keep out.
In what seemed like a cruel twist of fate, only in the days after I electronically committed the binding early decision documents to a school — not Yale — did the emotional cogs grind into action. For once in the whole process, I didn’t consult Fiske – and my convictions were clearer than they had ever seemed before. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when I decided that I was not, in fact, ready to commit to the school to which I had only days before offered my digital allegiance. Regardless, I am tremendously grateful that the school was so accommodating of my ill-timed gestalt shift.
I am not one to subscribe to any higher power. My family, Jewish by heritage, hauls a eight-foot Christmas tree into the house every winter. But when that school told me that my fax had never actually gone through, I reveled, and found a little guilty comfort in the destiny that seemed at play.
For me, the disappearance of snow marked not only a welcome shedding of winter attire, but the end of a long wait for letters, thick and thin, from a handful colleges. I was fortunate enough to receive a few of the former, and I attended two revisit days — paradoxically, at Yale and at the school from which I had bailed a few months earlier. And only then did I fully internalize what those adults had told me late in the fall: “Dan, go with your gut.”
During those campus visits, I consciously ignored the posters advertising the number of political parties on campus (seven, really?) or the athletic prowess of the various sports teams. It may seem cliché, but I’m sure many of my classmates felt a similar thrill on the Yale campus that they didn’t experience elsewhere. And for once, I heeded these feelings.
In the end, I agree with Lehrer; my emotions guided me to the best decision I could make. Because, now I realize, when I’m up late at night working on a paper in TD or hanging out on Old Campus, it’s not just the 6:1 student-faculty ratio that will shape my interactions or overall happiness. And that’s why, thanks to my irrationality, I chose Yale.
Daniel Weiner is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.