The agony of making the wrong choice

When was the last time you made a decision that turned out to be wrong?

Before I tell you about mine, take a look at this image. What do you see?

If you have never seen this before, you might be able to guess at parts of the image or you might only see a series of black and white blobs and squiggles.

This will become relevant in a moment but for now, here’s the story about my decision.

It happened last Thursday morning and I decided to send my 5-year old son to school, even though he had a cold. He has already had two colds this year and was fine to attend school on both occasions. The last time he had a cold, I asked a few of the other parents what they thought about sending ‘germy’ kids in, especially during a pandemic, and they all confirmed that their kids were going in with colds too. Let’s face it, at this age, the classroom is basically a glorified petrie dish and there’s very little chance of keeping them all cold-free. So, despite the disturbed night he’d had and the fact that he asked to stay home, I convinced him it was best to go to school. Off he went, with the promise of a treat dinner and my reassurance that, should he become too unwell, I would fetch him straight away.

Two hours later, I picked up my phone and instantly felt my stomach twist as I read the message on the home screen. Please contact the office. Max is unwell and has been removed from class. We have been trying to contact you. 4 missed call notifications sat just below the message. The first one was from 32 minutes earlier. I hadn’t realised my phone was on mute! I called immediately and was informed that Max was coughing constantly. That’s when the conversation turned to Coronavirus.

Reality and Knowing

Prior to that conversation, the possibility of Coronavirus hadn’t even entered my head. I know it’s crazy, considering how the world is right now but it hadn’t. I saw only my boy, exhibiting the same symptoms he has exhibited every winter since he was a toddler and twice more this year already.

Instantly, my brain reassessed the same collection of symptoms and they came together to form an entirely different reality. Could my son have Coronavirus? Had my decision just condemned an entire class of 5-year olds and their families to two weeks of isolation and possibly the virus itself?

He had been coughing before I sent him in. He was coughing during the night. What the hell had I been thinking?! I knew the guidance. New persistent cough = stay home. More than three bouts of coughing in 24 hours = stay home. HE SHOULD HAVE STAYED HOME! It was SO obvious!

Yet, earlier that day, it seemed obvious he should go to school.

This is where the black and white blobs become relevant.

Here is the image with all the detail filled in.

Now take a look at the first image again:

Can you see it more clearly this time?

More importantly, can you “unsee” it now that you’ve seen the full image?

What’s really interesting is that, once you’ve seen the full image, your brain can seamlessly “fill in the blanks” to create the full picture. It is no longer made up of indecipherable blobs. You don’t notice your brain doing this, nor can you stop it.

Reshaping Reality

What we don’t realise is that this process of ‘filling in the blanks’ and ‘creating coherent stories’ happens constantly. This is how we make sense of the world. Our brains don’t like ambiguity. It stresses us out. Most people feel much better looking at the blobby picture once they can make sense of it.

Images like the ones you’ve just seen are used to demonstrate something called “Experiential Blindness” – where your brain initially lacks a frame of reference and has to work very hard, trawling through memories, existing concepts and other stored information to find a match and help you make sense of what you’re seeing. As soon as you see the full picture, it gets loaded into the system and is easily applied to the partial image so you will never again experience confusion when you see it (assuming your memory continues to function well).

The same process happens every time we encounter anything in the world. It’s how you know a chair is a chair and know what to do when you encounter one. It’s how I knew my son had a cold.

Until I didn’t.

You see, the minute new information comes to light, our brains construct a new coherent story and, from that point on, we struggle to see the decision we made in the same way we saw it at the time of making it.

Instead we see it through the new filter (the outcome) and ask, what the hell was I thinking?!

This is one of the reasons I feel terribly sorry for social workers and politicians. The right decision is always so obvious in hindsight.

Constructing our own Reality

These blobby images are great for illustrating the brain’s ability to fill in the gaps in the available information. When it comes to decisions like mine, it’s tougher to ‘see’ the brain filling in the gaps and creating the story (until you come to tell it afterwards, of course!). I didn’t notice my brain shaping the blobs into the “he has a cold” story. I only saw the story and went with it.

I’d say I was about 80% confident in my choice when Max walked to school that day. Three hours later, the blobs had re-formed into an entirely new reality and I felt like the world’s shittiest person – bad mum and all round bad human.

It was no longer possible for me to consider the events of from the morning in the same light I had seen them the first time around.

The same experience can happen with any decision – choosing whether or not to trust a partner after an infidelity, deciding whether to go for the big promotion even though you’re not sure about how you’ll get on with your new boss, taking the plunge and starting your own business – only to end up facing a global pandemic a month later..! Out of interest, what was the decision you felt you got wrong? If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d love it if you let me know in the comments below.

Either way, I hope this post helps illustrate the challenge with “wrong” decisions – they’re only wrong once new information comes to light but our brains trick us into thinking the outcome was obvious at the time of making the decision and we failed to spot it.

Well. Does he have Coronavirus?

I’m thrilled to say his test came back negative. He had the day at home on Friday while we waited for his results and he returned to school today to take up his place in the petrie dish.

Photo by Taras Zaluzhnyi on Unsplash

Experiential Blindness Images shown by Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett in her TED talk: You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions: Your brain creates them.

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