Help Your Brain Make Better Decisions: Cognitive Skill Building for ALL of Us

We have all begun a new calendar year. For some, there is already stress and more of the same challenges from last year. But this post has answers for you. This is all about using something FREE to help your brain in the decision-making process. It works for you, your colleagues, your family and your students.

By the way, over a year’s time, what is it worth to you to make just ONE better decision a day?

The Research

How do you make decisions?

Let’s say (just randomly) you were offered a choice of a free tropical vacation to either the Caribbean or Hawaii. One tour package offers ‘80% relaxing down time’, and the other touts ‘wild and challenging adventures (like hiking, trying out a new sport like stand up paddle boarding) for 20% of your time.’

Which trip sounds like more fun?

You are, of course, being reminded of the “framing” effect.

Framing means that we are assessing a decision based on the point of view, the labeling of options, and the tone of the choices. Back in the classroom, when faced with a decision between two classroom options, one labeled “80% fun” the other “20% hard work”, which choice would your students choose?

While the overall class time is exactly the same, students would overwhelmingly pick “80% fun.”

Researchers link the framing effect to neural activity in a key emotional center in the human brain, the amygdala. Using fMRI scans, we can also identify another region, the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex, that may moderate the influence of emotion on decisions.

In short, our “slower, more thoughtful decisions” are regulated by our thinking area (prefrontal cortex) and our “faster” decisions are regulated by our faster responding emotional brain (amygdala). Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman nailed down his understanding of this in his profound work, Thinking Fast and Slow.

So HOW do you and your students make decisions?

Common variables include time (are you in a hurry to make a decision?), framing effects (the bias of the presentation, such as in the vacation scenario above), under- or over- confidence (based on past experiences) and following internal and external decision rules (assumptions and constraints of the problem).

Maybe this sounds like, “Duh?” research, but it’s actually profound.


Our lives move pretty fast. We actually don’t get enough of the time we’d like to make decisions about retirement planning, meal planning and lesson planning.

We end up using our “fast brain” resources more often than we may admit.

And that, my friend, is a sorry use of our brain.

QUICK: solve this next puzzle in 30 seconds.

Together a papaya and a lime cost $1.10. The papaya costs $1 more than the lime. How much does the lime cost?

This seems easy, doesn’t it? Most people say that the lime is 10 cents. But that is not correct. I’ll give you the correct answer in a minute.

You might say, “Well, that’s a trick question. That’s not like real life decisions.”

Ahhh.. but it is like real life.

Time can and does work against us. Framing can work against us.

Today, people grocery shop a little faster than years ago. Food marketers understand this process. Let’s say you pick up a product and check the label. It seems pretty straightforward. But there is leeway in HOW marketers can present the food information.

One label on a product I buy says, “Gluten FREE, Unsweetened, NON-GMO, fat FREE, additives FREE.” No way! The product is practically FREE; I’LL BUY IT!”

I felt good and put a dozen of them in my cart.

Food labels bias food evaluations in the amygdala, a core emotional brain system. The faster emotional brain was just activated by a label that the consumer thinks will help them make a more thoughtful decision!

Now, let’s make use of these in the classroom.

Getting Started with Actionable Strategies

In order for us to move though life, we have to use mental shortcuts (heuristics). Those are simple “thought formulas” so that you can construct responses quickly and effortlessly, without the need for pause and reflecting deeply with mental calculations.

Research shows that you and your students build your thinking models (on which you make your decisions) based on:

1) how much time you really have to make this decision (this tells you which brain area to use: the fast or the slow area)

2) the strength of your cognitive abilities to understand the problem (your ability to understand the meaning, sort out the framing biases and juggle the content)

3) the strength of your capacity to self-monitor (are you using the newly gained feedback and reflecting on prior experiences)

4) decision thresholds (determining the “trigger” point for your decision or solution. Is it when it feels “right” or just “whenever it gets done”?)

To make better decisions, help yourself and your students with a simple approach. Discover HOW you (and your students) make existing decisions and how you can make better ones.

1) Ask, “How much time do I really have to make this decision?”
Teach students to ask for more time (if needed), and to find out if the deadline is fixed or flexible. This is a great life skill!

2) Determine your cognitive abilities to understand the problem (in spite of the framing biases). Teach students to frame the problem 2 or 3 different ways before trying to solve it. Involve others to reframe the problem or help with decision-making. Teach students to use one of their own cognitive support tools (draw out the problem, talk it out with another person, walk through it, or repeat it.)

3) Understand the strength of your capacity to self-monitor… are you using BOTH new feedback and reflecting on prior experiences in this decision? Teach students to take in feedback without fear or judgment. Invite students to ask Qs to reduce any biases they might have (i.e. “My math teacher always said to…”).

4) Identify the decision threshold… at what “trigger” point is your decision made? Teach students to set their criteria for a decision threshold BEFORE the problem is begun. It is good to know when you are finished!

Most teachers (but you are not “most”) are unaware of all the things THEY can do to make better thinking happen.

Let’s use the #2 item above as an example. As you work with others, framing is the “spin” you put on things. I call it an intentional bias. We all have our biases, but framing is very intentional.

For example, you can say to your students, “Our last quiz was bad. Look around this room: one in five of you totally failed it. If we don’t get better, there’s going to be some serious consequences.”


“Good work for our class on the last quiz. We aren’t yet at 100% passing, so this week we’ll be trying out a few different things to get everyone in the success column. If you want everyone in class to get 100%, raise your hand and say, “I’m all in!’”

The framing effect could realistically be used all day long and all year long. Too much is an overkill and alot of work for you.

But when things are not working well, one place to notice is how you frame events. For example:

“I’m worried class. You have only five minutes left and if you guys don’t get your act together, your team loses out… you’ll never make the deadline.”

Or, you could say,

“Attention! You’re on track. In your last five minutes, be sure everyone helps their working partner get his or her last few items completed and the team report is finished. Check the posted sample on the wall. This will ensure everyone gets full credit. Now turn to your teammates and say, ‘Let’s do it!’”

Notice how there are many ways to say the same thing.

We all have our biases. Why not put a positive spin to things so that students feel more capable and energized!

Problem-solving can engage curiosity, build the brain and be VERY satisfying and practical. Create a simple post-up list with the tools to solve class and life problems. You just might be helping build out career skills or fostering a more competent human being. Woo-hoo!

* The answer to the papaya and lime puzzle: the lime costs five cents and the papaya costs $1.05. (If you need to recheck your answer, remember to add the cost of the two fruits together!)

And remember: if you ever mess up and don’t have a great day, DO NOT beat yourself up over it. Forgive yourself and recommit to the next day. Do not expect perfection of yourself; expect constant effort and constant learning. Every day, do something. Every day, put one foot forward.

I want to repeat tennis legend Arthur Ashe’s quote. He said, “Start where you are. Do what you can. Use what you have.” You can’t get any more profound (or useful) than that. So… you are about done reading. Go ahead and select the strategy to start NOW!

Congratulations! You’re on the way to a great day!


Thank you,

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

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