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themindHow do you make decisions?  Do you collect information? Do you collect opinions? Do you look back at past experience? Do you avoid rocking the boat?

This week I listened to a VPR interview with Dr Ellen Langer. It is a 51 minute interview but worth taking the time to listen to.  Ellen Langer is a professor at Harvard University.  Since the 1970’s she has been conducting research experiments in the study of mindlessness and mindfulness. One overall conclusion that she presents is “whatever you are doing you are doing mindfully or mindlessly and the consequences of being in one state or the other are enormous!

Actively noticing something is being mindful. Mindlessness is everything else!   “I don’t think you can decide to be present but you can decide to notice something”  (suggests Dr Langer) and as you notice something and get really interested “you are in the present, sensitive to context and enlivened”.  She suggested an exercise to notice five new things about the person you live with (or work with etc) and see what happens.

This comment and some later comments made me think about how people make decisions.  How often are they made mindlessly based on what happened last time? Or what might happen this time?  Or an unfounded opinion? How often are they based on information and best guess or prediction versus an imagined outcome and wanting to avoid that outcome?

Very often the answer to a question is I don’t know.  How many times do you say I don’t know and how often do you make up your answer? Very often we do make decisions in uncertainty. You can decide to do something but you cannot be sure what is going to happen.  You can decide to change a belief and that may change the outcome. Dr Langer distinguishes between personal uncertainty and universal uncertainty.  Personal uncertainty (or mindlessness) is “I don’t know, I know I don’t know, maybe you now and therefore I have to fake it!”  Universal uncertainty is “I don’t know, you don’t know, we really can’t know” and being ready to acknowledge that uncertainty can change all sorts of things.  Try it…it opens up a space where different viewpoints are OK, where you can have real discussion not arguments about one viewpoint vs another, and then if you have to make a decision you can make one based on many different viewpoints depending on what feels good to you.

When you are faced with a new task do you ask can I do it or how can I do it?   Ellen Langer found Can I do it forces you to look at the past to come up with an answer – not very helpful most of the time and mindless.  How can I do it sets a completely different frame of reference and puts you in an exploring mindset.  Next time you are faced with a new task try asking yourself how can I do it? and notice what happens.  Think what we could do in society if we focused on how can we do it!

Listen to the entire interview with Dr Ellen Langer.