Second Level Thinking and Metacognition
Tips on how to make better decisions
Lately I’ve encountered various sources of content focused on how one can improve their decision making to lead them to better life outcomes. I wasn’t personally at a crossroads, trying to do my due diligence before making an important decision, so I’m not sure why these all culminated at this time in my life. Could have just been a pure coincidence, but I figured it was worth sharing some of the insights. They range from making decisions within your relationships, under the influence of emotions, and within the context of pursuing happiness.
The first piece of content was a Q&A response video with one of the founders of GBRS Group (DJ Shipley) talking about his experience with marital crisis/infidelity. Again, not a subject I was particular seeking out, but I had listened to a long form podcast with him explaining the numerous ways he contributed to his marriage spiraling out of control during his time in the military. Throughout that podcast he noted a few key interventions that allowed him to be aware of the destruction he was causing, and the harm being inflicted on his wife/family. He made it a point to emphasize that his wife was an angel and not to be blamed for any of the marriage difficulties. (I add this because I do promote taking ownership, and therapists will point out that both parties are at fault in SOME way during marriage crisis. So an argument could be made that his wife was complicit in the marital crisis—but this case is far from that.)
I was curious to see his response about the ways in which he has reconciled with those actions and implemented changes to prevent those damaging patterns of behavior from creeping back into his life. DJ said, “The catalyst to every one of my bad decisions stemmed from putting my individual needs ahead of the needs of my group.” It’s up to you to define who that group is. They could be a your sports team, your co-workers, and/or your family. But define who your group is and write down why they are important to you. Then he said, you have a framework to run through questions like the following, and ask yourself…
“Will having 7-8 beers at the bar be good for my group?”
“Will engaging in this activity help my group?”
“Will my group be proud of me for doing (fill in the activity)?”
If the answer is no, well then chances are it’s probably not a good decision.
Lex Fridman did a podcast episode with Bishop Robert Barron, where they discussed the seven deadly sins and their relation to the modern day world. Bishop Barron highlighted Pride as the deadliest of the deadly sins, and said all the other sins are derivatives of pride. Our temptations are to pull people into our life, to be self-absorbed, to suck everything into ourselves. When we make decisions that are based on ourselves, we become prideful humans, which is why we are sinners. The opposite of pride is humility. When you’re lost in the moment or helping others, you radiate energy outward, as opposed to sucking energy inward. Humility, compassion, love, empathy are all antidotes to pride.
This is not to say you should never put your individual needs first. Self-care is extremely important and a point of emphasis if you are to live a truly healthy life. But self-care is different than selfish desire. It’s up to you to be able to differentiate between the two.
How? Funny you should ask. I also recently listened to an episode of Peter Attia’s podcast “The Drive” with guest Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist, professor at Harvard University, columnist for The Atlantic, and author of “From Strength to Strength” and “Build the Life You Want.” In this podcast, Arthur explains how humans have four universally fundamental negative emotions. They are fear, anger, disgust, and sadness. There is clear evolutionary significance to each of these emotions, and they are engrained in the limbic system of our brain.
It takes 74 milliseconds for the visual cortex of the brain to see a threat (fear/anger), record it in the amygdala, send a signal to the adrenal glands, and physically react. This is the limbic system of our brain keeping us alive when we see a car swerve into our lane while driving down the freeway at 70mph. The insular cortex of our brain fires when we see disgusted facial expressions, unpleasant odors, or rotten foods. Again, our limbic system at work predicting potential threat and immediately signaling a protective course of action. This is the region of our brain that the media and politicians try to reprogram so that when somebody disagrees with you, you look at them with disgust, like “how could believe such a thing?” Lastly, the dorsal anterior singular cortex region of the brain is responsible for the sadness emotion. This signal kicks in as a result of social isolation or missing a loved one.
These are all highlighted as components of the limbic system of our brain. Arthur says that while there is value in being limbic, what separates humans from every other animal specie is that we can also experience emotions in the prefrontal cortex of our brain. When you experience the emotion in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, you can decide to make conscious, executive decisions, instead of relying on limbic reaction.
Arthur calls this phenomena of experiencing emotion in the prefrontal cortex of the brain “metacognition.” It’s the opposite of being limbic. Metacognition is allowing the “CEO” part of your brain decide the course of action/inaction, rather than the “little kid” part of your brain (limbic portion). He uses this terminology to stress the importance of objectively looking at situations, understanding all angles, and future ramifications, much like a CEO would, rather than experiencing the axiomatical, volatile emotions of toddlers that don’t yet have developed brains to make rational, conscious decisions.
Many people tend to avoid certain scenarios, sources of news, or events because they activate their limbic system. But Arthur says we shouldn’t be scared of the limbic response, all it’s really doing is providing information. We need to learn how to use that information and process that information in an executive way using our developed pre-frontal cortex. This is essentially what the famous practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is teaching. You take in information, analyze it, and then act, versus simply reacting.
Here are a few ways to practice/develop metacognition. They all boil down to creating space between your limbic system and your CEO brain. If you can’t create the space, you live a very reactive life. Arthur equates it to letting the kids be in charge of the family budget as opposed to the parents. I think we all know how that ends…
Count to 30—as soon as your limbic system is activated, count to 30 and envision the consequences of what your limbic brain was thinking of doing. This naturally shifts the information into the pre-frontal cortex and you process the information as opposed to reacting to it.
Therapy—talk with licensed and/or clinical therapist to learn about emotions, and explore the patterns of emotions that you feel.
Meditation—meditation is really just being a scientist, investigating/exploring yourself. You analyze your thoughts and emotions from a removed point of view and take notes about the phenomenon you’re witnessing in your mind.
Prayer—when you bring in a higher power to help you manage the complexities in your life, you’re experiencing those complexities in the pre-frontal cortex, and consciously acknowledging them.
Exposure to Nature—remove the distractions and technology in your life, and spend time alone in the world. You’ll notice you’re much more cognitively aware of your thoughts.
Journaling—write down your emotions. Arthur said that anxiety is really just unfocused/undefined fear. If you get out a pen and paper, and write down the 5 things your afraid of, you force the pre-frontal cortex to take over and identify those limbic feelings. Anxiety is processing outside stimuli as minor threats, forcing the body to get a constant drip of cortisol. If we identify those threats, we allow metacognition to utilize the information in a formative way, instead of autonomously signaling the stress response.
In a roundabout way, what DJ was doing when he asked himself “Is this good for my group?” was engaging in metacognition and letting his pre-frontal cortex make decisions, instead of being a slave to his limbic desires. Take charge. You’re the entrepreneur, you’re the CEO. The CEO doesn’t do what feels good all the time, they do what feels right. They don’t make decisions for immediate gratification, but for long term stability and happiness.
As I listened to Arthur talk about living a “reactive” life, it reminded me of this article I read by Bryan Johnson a few months ago called “My Goal Alignment Problem.” The premise of the article is that the brain is very elusive, and without a guiding system or framework, your decision making will be sporadic.
Here’s an excerpt from it: “New-Year’s-resolution Bryan resolves he will get up, everyday, at five am, to workout. The next day, Five-am Bryan wants just 30 more minutes in bed and doesn’t see what the fuss is all about. That afternoon, Famished-workout Bryan reasons that he can safely eat a second sandwich and even a few more potato chips because of how many calories he burned while working out. Plus, he’ll just skip dinner.” And then dinner comes around…
We can all relate to that story. The limbic system acts up. We have a desire to eat the donut. We pause and think for a second. Tap into the prefrontal cortex. We know it’s not good for us. We contemplate walking away. But we cave and say, “what the hell is one donut, gotta live a little.”
This is where you need to work and define the “true north” to which to set your pre-frontal cortex decision-making-compass to. To get the best out of your decisions, they need to aggregate towards a common goal. You can metacognitively make many decisions, and they will produce better results than your limbic reactions, but those still might not be optimal. That decision-making-compass ALSO has to be calibrated to quality information. Meaning you must educate yourself with meaningful, and accurate sources of knowledge in order to optimize that compass.
Questions I like to ask myself if I’m not sure where my compass is pointing are:
“What can I do now to make my life easier tomorrow?”
“If 24-hours-into-the-future were to make the decision, what would he choose?”
I’m currently reading the book, “Clear Thinking,” by Shane Parrish. I originally came across Shane’s content through his weekly Sunday Brain Food Newsletter where he provides insights and thoughts to ponder as you start your week. He’s committed to sharing knowledge and best practices that other people have already figured out. “Clear Thinking” is a culmination of all the research, interviewing and experiences Shane has lived to-date, and packaged in a way for the reader to walk away with various tools added in their decision making toolbox.
Shane identified four “defaults” / behavioral programs written into our DNA by natural selection that will trigger certain responses if left unaccompanied by critical thought. These are strikingly similar and in direct relation to the emotions talked about by Arthur above. They are..
Emotion Default—we respond to feelings rather than reasons and facts
Ego Default—we react to anything that threatens our self-worth
Social Default—we tend to conform to the norms of our larger social group
Inertia Default—we are habit forming and comfort seeking, and we tend to resist change and seek out ideas and environments that are familiar
These defaults don’t have defined boundaries and can morph into one another. When they are at work, they lead to unforced errors and sub-optimal decisions. People who have self-awareness of their defaults, and work to negate them get the best real-world results and make better decisions. But make no mistake, those biological instincts/defaults are very strong.
Shane spends the first part of the book elaborating on each of these defaults and how they manifest in human behaviors. He gives great examples of common self-talk, thoughts, and motivations that are associated with the defaults. This is critical in getting a better understanding of when your limbic system is activated. If your mind is in cruise control while the limbic system is activated, you’ll find yourself displaying one or more of these defaults.
After describing in detail these four defaults, he begins to dive into remedies to combat them. Examples include, changing your environment so that the behavior you would like to express is the norm. Or establishing a ritual to create positive inertia, focusing the mind on something other than the present moment. Or setting standards/rules to hold yourself to. Or identifying a “board of mentors” that you want to please. All these would be a form of metacognition. Distancing yourself from limbic reaction, and establishing cognitive awareness. It’s in this section of the book where he defines, outlines, and details four strengths that counteract your defaults: self-accountability, self-knowledge, self-control, and self-confidence.
Champions don’t create the standards of excellence.
The standards of excellence create champions.
Shane also explains how you can use the Alcoholics Anonymous’s acronym HALT, to safeguard your decision-making from your limbic defaults. HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. He says that if you have an important decision to make, ask yourself if you are experiencing any of these four emotions. If you are, avoid making the decision until a more opportune time.
The chapters in the latter half of the book discuss other factors that contribute to better decision making. I equate these to being the quality component of your decision-making compass. The first doubles back down on DJ’s point, and that’s defining what’s most important to you. Create a hierarchy of criterion that play a factor in your decision making, list them on a piece of paper, and then pit them against each other. That will leave you with a source of truth regarding the bottom line with any decision.
From there, seek out information that’s relevant and accurate to inform your decision. Get high-fidelity information. Information that’s close to the source and unfiltered by other people’s biases and interests. Get high-expertise information. Information that comes from both people with a lot of knowledge and/or experience in a specific area, and from people with knowledge and experience in many areas.
“Information is food for the mind. What you put in today, shapes your solutions tomorrow.”
This is a good time to differentiate the difference between a decision and a choice. Casually selecting an option from a range of alternatives is a choice. When you react without thinking, you make an unconscious choice. A decision is a choice that involves conscious thought. To make better decisions, your conscious thoughts/pre-frontal cortex needs to be well informed and store quality knowledge.
The Decision Making Process
Define the problem
Explore possible solutions
Evaluate the options
Make the decision/judgement that a certain option is the best one
If you’ve made it this far in the article, thank you! You have probably also read all my other articles since you’re such a committed fan of the TCM page, so you know about my recent journey exploring faith. The last piece of relevant information/content that relates to decision making comes from the bible.
With my desire to be more informed, aware, and exploratory of faith, I’ve been reading the bible every morning the last few weeks. Specifically the New Testament. (Keep in mind that my religious knowledge prior to this journey was pretty much non-existent). As I read the book of Matthew, I really began to understand the foundation of sin, its importance in the world, why humans are sinful, and most importantly, its significance with Jesus.
Temptation is what happens when we feel the pull toward violating God’s commands. At first it was my understanding that simply being tempted into sin was not the same as committing sin. And to be clear, it’s not. BUT, in Matthew 5:21 - 5:47, Jesus tells us that that while we think we avoid sins in their extreme forms, we regularly commit them in subtle ways.
Matthew 5:27-28 "You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.'
But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
What he was saying here, is that it’s not just the “physical act” of adultery that’s a sin, but there is also sin when the heart and mind “wish” for the adultery. Jesus provides examples of the subtle ways in which we commit the sin of murder, divorce, revenge, oaths to God etc. The biggest takeaway I got from this section of Matthew is that sin can sneak up on you in discrete ways, much like our limbic brain responses. Being conscious of the thoughts you’re having is pivotal in avoiding the dangers of sin. Sin is what will feel good in the moment. It’s not what will give you peace and a strong relationship with God in the long-term.
Maybe I’m crazy and more cerebral than I need to be, but lately I’ve spent much more energy towards analyzing my sequences of thought. What I mean by that is, when a new thought enters my head, I trace the thoughts that stem from it with a “thread” to get insight into the incentive behind the original thought. That is, I watch as the chain of thoughts unfold to see what it was trying to accomplish. Was that original thought prompting a productive sequence of neural activity, or was that thought going to pull me towards sin/bad decisions.
Oliver Burkeman in his book, “Four Thousand Weeks,” talks about how there is an opportunity cost to thinking. What else could you be thinking about if you weren’t thinking about what you were currently thinking about? AKA, you can’t think two things at once. You have limited time, and limited cognitive energy, so he advocates towards acknowledging when thoughts are productive for you, and quickly moving on from thoughts that are unproductive for you.
Overall, I hope that one, two, or a combination of these decision making insights bring value to your life. Personally, I’ve found that I’m much more patient when I use metacognition versus limbic response. Many matters and interactions are trivial in nature and are not worth being worked up for, but you only get to that conclusion by using your pre-frontal cortex. Hopefully these practices lead to better decision, less regret, and ultimately a happier life.
Small, good decisions add up over time. The problem is we often lack the patience to see them out. Don’t be in a rush, trust the pre-frontal cortex. The CEO makes the big money for a reason.
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