Radiolab’s “Choice” episode: This is your brain on emotions

The public radio program Radiolab (one of the most interesting and thought-provoking radio programs around, in my opinion) had an episode recently that might be of interest to Ethicurean readers. The title of the program was “Choice,” and it examined how people make choices — or rather, are compelled by emotion or external pressures into decisions.

Although the show is produced in New York City, the episode began in my Bay Area neighborhood, specifically at the Berkeley Bowl Marketplace, a food paradise in which new shoppers can easily be overwhelmed by the varieties and permutations of produce available. During the winter, for example, there are probably 40 types of citrus for sale.

The battle between emotion and reason in your brain
The Radiolab hosts talk with Professor Baba Shiv from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business about some of his work on how people make decisions. In one experiment, Shiv and his collaborators asked the subjects to memorize either a 1-digit or a 7-digit number, then walk down the hall to another room, where they would tell another person the number. Along the way, they met someone from the research team who offered them a snack as a way of saying thanks: either a big slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. By large differences, those who were trying to remember the 7-digit numbers picked the cake over the fruit salad.

The researchers’ explanation for this is that the rational part of the brain and the emotional part of the brain are always in conflict, and that the task of remembering 7 digits was enough to overload the rational part of the brain and make the person go with the cake. (Stanford Business magazine has a summary of some of his group’s research, including the cake study.)

I wonder if this finding can be extrapolated to daily life. Many of our brains are overwhelmed by worries, errand lists, bill deadlines to keep track of, and so many other things. What if these items keep our rational brains busy and cause us to keep making unwise choices for ourselves and our planet?

Apples and more apples, overload and regret
Later in the episode, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich visit Berkeley Bowl’s apple section to make a point about choice. They stage an “experiment” in which each pick an apple from the Bowl’s immense selection (sometimes as many as 20 choices — different varieties with labels ranging from organic, “no spray,” or industrial; locally grown vs. imported; and so on). Robert spends just a few seconds and picks out a giant Zazz apple because he likes the name, while Jad agonizes: he compares and contrasts, calculates and contemplates, looks at sizes and shapes, and then eventually chooses an expensive organic apple-pear.

When they try their fruit a few hours later, Robert is ecstatic, but Jad is disappointed, saying “This doesn’t even taste like an apple.” (Could it be because it’s an apple pear?) One of the explanations for the evaluation is that Jad’s long, complicated deliberation filled his memory with many “what could have been” points — “I should have picked one of those beautiful golden apples” or “I should have gone with an heirloom variety” and so on — which create a sense of regret.

The episode has much more on the subject of choosing (or choosing to not choose), including a talk with neurologist and best-selling writer Oliver Sacks about his highly regimented diet, plus a look a how casinos make people feel better about a losing day at the slot machines.

So why are we covering this?
As I listened to the program, I thought about the choices facing myself and other Ethicureans. In my own life, there are places where I purposefully cut out much of the rational debate. For example, by purchasing most of my produce, eggs, and nuts from local farmers markets. This limits the number of options, which is both good and bad, but it prevents buyer’s remorse because I feel good about nearly everything I buy at the farmers market.

For other products — like molasses — I get caught up in webs of decisions that trap me in the grocery aisle for ages and bother me later on. Domestic conventional molasses or imported fair trade? Plastic or glass bottle? Sulfured or unsulfured? Is organic worth the extra money in this case? (For what it’s worth, I chose the Wholesome Sweeteners molasses, which is from Paraguay, is fair trade, and in a plastic bottle.)

How about you? Do you agonize about everything, or have you drawn certain boundaries that define “good enough”?

The “Choice” episode, along with all of Radiolab’s previous shows, can be streamed or downloaded for free at the Radiolab website. Image of Homer’s brain is a downloadable desktop wallpaper from the Simpsons Trivia website.

5 Responsesto “Radiolab’s “Choice” episode: This is your brain on emotions”

  1. Cornelia says:

    YES I agonize – to the point of total paralyzation. I can hem and haw about cheese for 20 minutes. Organic milk, yogurt and butter – no problem. But cheese? Fancy, imported moldy stinky cheeses? Well…if it came from France, it’s prolly ok. Vermont – righteous! Wisconsin – oooh somehow food miles from the midwest are longer than those from France. And on and on it goes.
    A big fan of the site, btw.

  2. Topdog says:

    don’t get me started on agony. but you’re right, trying to buy local makes it MUCH easier to choose (and to feel good about the choice).  thank you also for the heads up on radiolab, sounds like an amazing show.  I thought I would mention that I was like Jad when choosing from a menu at a restaurant, until I started following my husband’s method which is, choose the first thing that looks good and stop reading the rest.  This is an emotional decision, and for some reason more helpful than a rational one.  also, what about choosing wine? that can be so fraught; Robert’s emotional approach does not work in this case. (Just because the graphics are cool on the label and it has a neat name does not mean the wine will be pleasing).  great blog, keep it up.

  3. Jodie says:

    Are they sure that the participants aren’t choosing sugar as a means to relieve stress? Sugar has immediate calming properties.

  4. limesarah says:

    I’m confused about why they think eating cake is an irrational decision.  I mean, sure, you shouldn’t eat it for three meals a day, but the opportunities for free cake are few and far between.  

  5. - says:

    “apple pears” are asian pears.
    taste better than most european pears. fast growers. like water.
    if good var properly sized (thin!), they are very juicy, and somewhat spicy.