Chapter 1 - Consent Subchapter: Stop Ask Listen

How do we choose?

Key points

  • There’s a lot behind any decision we make.
  • Our initial gut reaction drives a lot of behaviour.
  • Our visions of the future give us clues about our beliefs.
  • Our beliefs are informed by all sorts of societal forces around us.
  • Our self-talk can give us a chance to change our thinking and behaviour.


There’s a lot more going on than you might think

Sometimes we look back on past decisions and think, “Why did I do that?”

Which raises the question: what happens when we’re thinking about making a decision? And how do we decide?

When somebody asks you to make a decision, you might notice a few things happen at once.

  • You have an initial gut reactionI do or don’t want to do this, I don’t mind, why are they even asking I’m so annoyed.
  • On top of that you might have some visions of the future, showing how the decision (or conflict around the decision) might play out.
  • And on top of that you might have some self-talk, evaluating or rationalising the decision in your head.


Those things might happen simultaneously or separately, instantly or over time.


The gut reaction

The words emotion, motion and motivation all come from the Latin word movere, which means—as you’d expect—“to move”.

This little detail, baked into our language, is a clue that for a long time we’ve known that our feelings drive our actions.

So our first gut reaction is important, because it is very likely to drive our decision.

Sometimes our gut is spot on; our gut can get the right answer before our brains do.

But sometimes our gut can be seriously wrong, so it’s important to double check, which is where the next couple of layers of thought kick in.


The visions of the future

When somebody asks you about a decision, you often see a vision of the future flash before your eyes. This feels like a type of thinking, but it’s a particularly reactive and automatic kind of thinking.

This vision can help us understand our first gut reaction, because it shows us what we think will happen.

But what fuels this thinking? If we are predicting the future, what’s the basis of our prediction?

This is a big question, because at its heart is the whole question of free will: are we actually in control of ourselves, or are we controlled by external forces?


A couple with a baby in a pram and a dog on a leash, with signs around them of various societal forces.


We can’t answer that question, but we can point out some of the influences that might affect how you feel about a decision, and what you believe might happen:

  • Social norms: The unwritten rules on social behaviour we pick up from the people around us. “I should use emojis because that’s what everyone does.” “If I pick my nose, I’m going to look bad.”
  • Media: Social norms we infer from what we see on media (which may or may not be true). “Kanye does it.” “It’s what Tay-tay would do.”
  • Laws: The written rules of our society. “Revenge porn is a crime.” “Hitting someone is assault.”
  • Social institutions: The different social contexts in which we live, work, grow up. “At home, I speak softly. With my friends, I shout.”
  • Past experiences: The lessons we’ve learned from trying things in the past. “If I ask someone out, I’m going to get rejected.” “Whenever I ask someone out, it always works out fine.” (For some people, one bad experience means they’ll never try something again; for other people, they’ll keep trying no matter how badly it always goes.)
  • Cognitive biases: Little formulas that your brain tends to apply to decisions. For instance, we often don’t like the thought of losing something, so we tend to want to stick with what we have, even if what we have is limiting or harmful. “I want to go out with Angus, but I’m afraid to leave Jacob. Even though Jacob is mean to me all the time, we’ve been through a lot together. So I’ll stick with Jacob.”
  • Explicit social pressures: Friends or family members or other bystanders putting direct pressure on you to choose one way. “I want to study hospitality, but all the people I care about are telling me to choose accounting.”


In Field Model terms, even though the decision is meant to be between two people, these hidden beliefs and expectations are like having a whole bunch of ghosts on the field at the same time, haunting you, and pushing you to make a particular decision.

If that’s the decision you really want to make, then everything’s cool. But if it’s not, then are you really making the decision, or are you being driven by outside forces?

This question brings us to the third layer of experience in making a decision: self-talk.


The self-talk

So how do you avoid being driven to decisions solely by social norms, pressures, biases and so on?

That’s where talking to yourself can be helpful. Self-talk, thinking things through, turning things over—this is what we call an executive function. Good self-talk can help you break a pattern, stop being reactive, and take control of yourself and your decisions.


Renata’s inner world with three representations of her each discussing how to respond to Gabe.


So, when you’re considering an important decision, and your gut is pushing you one way, and you’re having a vision of a particular future—you can pause for a moment and ask yourself questions such as:

  • Why do I feel the way I do?
  • Why is this other person asking me to do this?
  • How do they feel? What are they thinking? How do I know? How could I check?
  • How well do we understand each other?
  • What do I believe will happen? Why do I believe that?
  • What would be the right thing to do here?
  • How else could this be handled?
  • What are some other possibilities?


This kind of self-reflection gives you an opportunity to check in with yourself and get a new perspective on the decision.

You might decide your gut is right. You might decide it’s wrong. You might change your mind. You might start to feel differently.


You don’t have to paralyse yourself

Of course, too much thinking can make us self-conscious or fearful, and we can wind up paralysed and unable to make a decision.


You don’t want to get so tangled up in your thoughts that you miss an opportunity. On the other hand, if acting too quickly might hurt someone, then the best decision might be no decision.

Again, there is no magic formula for this; it’s something we all struggle with all the time: you need to pay attention to your gut, but you also need to think about things.

If you find yourself getting stuck, one tip is to break the decision down into smaller steps, so you can try something out, get more information, and then see if that makes the original decision clearer.