What happens when you choose between taking that summer vacation to Rome or a cruise to the Caribbean? What about when you give a fifty dollar bill to the homeless man outside the grocery store?

What happens in your brain at these moments when choices are being made?

The field of neuroeconomics investigates how decision making works in the brain. It is an entire field unto itself, the likes of which have only skimmed the surface when it comes to understanding such a fundamental part of our humanity.

ChoiceWhile there is much that we don’t yet know about decision making, we do know what components of the brain are involved in process. Decision making is part of the executive functions of the brain, those which manage higher order cognitive processes.

Making decisions is not always easy, but for young people it can be even more difficult than for adults. The main part of the brain involved in decision making, the prefrontal cortex, is the last part of the brain to mature. It doesn’t mature until well into the teenage years and sometimes into the mid to late twenties.

It isn’t that our youth can’t make good decisions, it is just that it may take more mental effort for them to do so. We can give our students the tools necessary to help navigate the terrain of tough choices.

Emotional Climate

The prefrontal cortex is the biological home to executive function. It is linked not just to making decisions, but also to personality, social interaction, and goal-setting.

EmotionsUnlike what we were once led to believe, decision making is not a cold, rational activity. Emotions play a great role in making choices. The amygdala, an emotional filter and part of the limbic system, receives sensory input and decides where to send information when it comes into the brain. It is heavily involved with the prefrontal cortex when it comes to making decisions.

Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Eric Kandel explains that the amygdala’s interaction with the prefrontal cortex has shed light on how we make decisions and the intricate link between the different types of decisions that we make.

“Moral decisions, decision-making, and emotions are often tied together…you cannot separate one and the other.”

Knowing that emotions are involved in decision making, we can teach our students to pay attention to the emotional climate around them. Students should be aware of their own emotions, as well as the emotions of other people who may be involved in the discussion.

Students can learn how to create an optimal emotional climate conducive to making decisions. A tolerant, low-threat, welcoming atmosphere is key. As teachers, we should ensure that our classrooms are a place where the emotional climate lends itself to making smart decisions.

Compass Points

The subjects we teach are relevant not only for the content being taught, but also for the life skills being forged along the way.

As an executive function, decision making relies on one’s ability to think critically. Compass Points is a  metacognitive tool that teachers can use to actively help students understand how they make decisions.

compass pointsOutlined in Making Thinking Visible, Compass Points takes an idea and breaks it up into the four points on the compass: Excitements, Worries, Needs, and Stance/Steps/Suggestions.

What about the idea excites you? What worries you? What more information do you need before you proceed? What stance/steps/suggestions can you take to propel the idea forward?

By breaking an idea or proposition up into this compass, students will be able to see what thoughts go into making a decision and learn more about their own thinking process. It also highlights the emotional part of decision making by asking about thoughts of excitement and worry.

This activity gives students a practical and metacognitive way to understand their thinking and emotions, both of which come into play when they make decisions.

Students who think critically about the choices they make will learn to make better choices in school and in life.

Hard Choices

Teaching students that choices can at times be quite difficult allows them to be prepared to make tough decisions. When we educate our students about choices they will face, we do a service to humanity by opening up the minds of our students to how decisions shape their distinctive personhood.

Philosopher Ruth Chang takes a new look at hard choices. She explains that choices are hard because the alternative is not better than, worse than, or even equal to the other option. Choices are about value.

Sometimes options are “on a par” with each other. Chang tells us that choices on a par are in the same league of value, while being different in kind of value. Chang argues that it is here, at this intersection of choices on a par, that we build ourselves.

“When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.”

We create reasons to become who we would like to be when we face hard choices and are able to make a decision. This is in opposition to someone labeled a “drifter,” who allows reasons to happen upon them.

Making choices, even difficult ones, should be embraced as a way toward building ourselves and exercising our humanity.

Diffuse Mode Thinking

Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering and co-creator of Learning How to Learn, discusses two different types of thinking: focused and diffuse mode.

In focused mode, a person consciously works on a problem and concentrates her attention on learning something. In diffuse mode thinking, the brain continues to work on a problem subconsciously. Neuroscientists tell us that you can only be in one mode at a time.

An answer can also be reached in diffuse mode thinking, not just focused mode. Sometimes, an answer or solution can only be reached in diffuse mode.

When faced with a difficult decision, it is important to allow for both focused and diffuse mode thinking. Focused thinking gives us the material with which we may arrive at the decision during diffuse mode.

runningDiffuse mode is helpful when we need to exercise creativity and come up with solutions that we haven’t consciously thought of before. Giving students time to ponder information is important, especially when it comes to making a decision.

We can activate diffuse mode by playing our favorite sport or taking a walk around the block. It does not necessarily mean we must consciously try not to think, we just need to give our minds a break from intently concentrating on the problem.


Just as all problems aren’t the same, all problems don’t necessarily require the same skills. Sometimes, we may venture into situations where the emotional climate may be high-stakes and may not be able to be controlled. Sometimes, we might have to make quick decisions, and using Compass Points or allowing time for diffuse mode thinking may not be relevant.

In these cases, the brain has access to neural patterns that have already formed and been solidified through repetition and practice. This is what Dr. Oakley likes to call “chunks” or the act of “chunking“.

“Chess masters, emergency room physicians, fighter pilots, and many other experts often have to make complex decisions rapidly. They shut down their conscious system and instead rely on their well-trained intuition, drawing on their deeply ingrained repertoire of chunks.”

Chunking allows you to rely on an intuition, which is forged through repetition of an activity. This creates a neural pattern that is recalled automatically. Instead of thinking about how to do something in steps, one simply does it. This way can be much more efficient and effective in certain instances, just as the examples above illustrate.

Quick decisionsLearning how to chunk and think about things in terms of the big picture, as opposed to constantly focusing on the smaller steps, is also important in the process of decision making. A student should know that for times that may require chunking, with the proper practice and previously acquired skill set, he has his brain to rely on.

Different types of decisions require different approaches. Different people require different strategies. By weaving these approaches into your classroom material, you are giving your students the tools to succeed in the classroom and in life.


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