A good decision

We humans strive to make good decisions. Be it the weekly bulk purchase or the question of the right choice of career, partner or place of residence. But how can we be sure that we are making a good decision? Many questions regarding a good decision can be presented in a simplified way using the so-called game theory.

Game theory is a mathematical theory in which decision-making situations are simulated. Usually there are several participants who interact with each other. Game theory attempts to derive rational decision-making behavior in social conflict situations from the simplified model.

The results of neuroscientific decision-making studies show that the influence of social aspects on games cannot be overestimated. We behave as if we are wired for long-term reciprocal relationships. Reward centers are activated when we are cooperative and generous. Brain areas that control negative stimuli such as disgust are activated when we encounter selfish behaviors.

These neural circuits appear programmed to produce a specific social behavior, namely:

  • try to avoid inequalities as far as possible,
  • to promote the principle of reciprocity
  • to urge punishments for those who gain advantage at the expense of others

In repeated games, reputation becomes an all-important factor. Actions with a cooperative person are always more rewarding. It is therefore more likely to cooperate with persons or people who do not have a reputation for being stingy or selfish.

Like our brain, a good decision meets

Neuroeconomics is a discipline that combines neuroscience and economics. Brain activities in certain decision-making situations are examined using neuroscientific methods (Sanfey 2007). The results of this still young and exciting science provide illuminating information about human decision-making processes. This results in the following finding:

The part of your brain that calculates the likelihood of making a decision operates separately from the part that calculates how happy that decision will make you.

Let's start with the benefit. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a biochemical messenger) that is released when one receives a reward or is in a period of anticipation, of a reward. Even criteria associated with a reward trigger a release of dopamine. Neurons that secrete dopamine are found in four brain areas:

  1. the nucleus accumbens
  2. the area tegmentalis ventralis (ventral tegmental area, VTA)
  3. the striatum
  4. the frontal cortex

These areas are considered our brain's reward system. Anything that brings us fun and joy (whether it's listening to our favorite music or seeing a beautiful face) activates this system. These circuits enable our brains to encode and remember the circumstances that brought us pleasure so that we can repeat that behavior in the future and recall the reward. When these circuits are activated, one could also say that the neural signatures for reward processing are in full swing.

Whether you receive a reward or make a decision that you believe will bring you a reward, the same areas are activated (Breiter et al. 2001; O'Doherty et al. 2002).

Moral Judgment - How we know right from wrong distinguish

In 1978, the philosopher Philippa Foot first proposed the following thought experiment on a moral dilemma, which went by the name "Trolley problemis known:

A tram is out of control and threatens to roll over five people chained to the tracks by a mentally ill philosopher. Luckily, you can switch a switch to divert the tram onto another track, thus averting the disaster. Unfortunately, there is also another person chained to the tracks. What do you do? Would you change the switch or would you do nothing? Most of the respondents would switch the switch and thus sacrifice one person to save five others. That seems right to them.

But now consider the following variant of the trolley problem put forward by Judith Jarvis Thomson (1985):

A runaway tram rolls on five people to. You yourself are standing on a bridge under which the tram is passing and can stop it by throwing a heavy object in its path. Unfortunately, there is nothing to see far and wide except for a very fat man standing right next to you - the only way to stop the tram is to push him over the bridge onto the tracks, so kill him for five others to save human lives.

would you do it What is the right decision for you? Contrary to the standard version put forward by Philippa Foot, most respondents now believe that pushing the fat man off the bridge is wrong - even if it means five lives are lost. As these issues show, our intuition can sometimes seem very contradictory when it comes to moral issues, which can also trigger very strong emotional reactions in us and have far-reaching implications for other people's lives.

What are morals for?

Moral questions grab our attention, have been shown to engage the brain, and elicit powerful emotional responses. One would therefore think that morality and morality fulfill an extremely important function for all of our thinking, feeling and acting. With reference to the work of the French philosopher and sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), Haidt points out that morality fulfills an important social function.

Morality binds and strengthens

A morally good decision has shared norms and values ​​that provide rules of conduct and order coexistence, combined with means and measures to punish dissenters and/or reward contributors. According to Haidt, however, there are other aspects of morality that have equally deep evolutionary roots. Based on intercultural studies, Haidt and Joseph (2008) present The Theory of Moral Foundations, according to which five psychological foundations for moral judgment can be identified, each of which has its own evolutionary origin.

 The five pillars of morality

  1. care – is rooted in emotional attachment systems, meaning the need to protect and nurture our offspring. These systems are essential to our ability to empathize with others and feel pain.
  2. Fairness – is reflected in the principle of reciprocity, an altruism based on reciprocity. This moral basis generates ideas of justice, legal laws and autonomy.
  3. loyalty (Group identification) - originates in our long history as tribal peoples forming shifting coalitions. Associated with this are virtues such as patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group; “One for all, all for one” applies.
  4. authority – stems from our origins as primates with a hierarchically ordered social structure. Associated with this are virtues such as leadership, allegiance, submission to legitimate authority, and respect for tradition.
  5. Clarity – is rooted in feelings of disgust and disgust (of contaminated food, for example), which ensure human survival and protect against diseases. Religious ideas and virtues, the striving to tread noble paths and to tame carnal lusts go with this pillar.

From problem-oriented to solution-oriented thinking

“Houston, we have a problem.” The majority of all readers will probably have heard this sentence at least once. The year is 1970 and NASA has just sent another manned expedition into space with Apollo 13.

It is the seventh manned expedition and the third planned to land on the moon. People are now quite used to these expeditions, so that hardly anyone follows the mission in front of the TV... until an oxygen tank explodes, damaging the spacecraft and putting the three astronauts in a fight to the death 330.000 km above Earth. As the astronauts struggle to survive in the limited time they are left with, the heroic crew at NASA's Houston Operations Center searches for ways to use the systems available onboard to get the crew home safely. As we all know from history (and from a great film adaptation directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks), they find a solution and the drama has a happy ending.

The lesson we draw from the Apollo 13 disaster (as well as from the results of 100 years of problem-based research) is this:

Problem solving means searching for knowledge and information

However, this seemingly simple insight has far-reaching consequences, not only in terms of improving solution strategies, but also with regard to automated processes. We now regularly rely on automated systems to solve our problems. Automated systems retrieve relevant information for us from the Internet, move robotic arms that act as assistants in medical operations or in the manufacture of cars, and they even trade stocks.

The way to a good decision - problem solving in four phases

In 1945 in particular, many new, scientific findings in the field of problem solving were published. The Hungarian mathematician Pólya summarized problem-solving processes in four phases (cf. Duncker K (1935) On the psychology of productive thinking. Springer, Berlin):

  1. Understanding the task: Get the essentials
    aspects of the problem clear. Search your knowledge store for related issues.
  2. Thinking up a plan: Search your knowledge store for information that is relevant to your solution
  3. Running the plan: Implement your solutions.
  4. review: Reflect on the aspect "What could I have done better?"

Imagine you want to go to the cinema and you can't find your car keys. Your target state, the goal, is "cinema". Her current state is "at home". The problem: You are in a situation in which your target state differs from the initial state. So they try everything possible to get into the cinema. Maybe call a friend to pick you up. Or you can walk, provided the weather is nice and the cinema is not too far away.

In the jargon of problem solvers, these are means or operators that you can use to reduce the difference between the target and initial state. And you know that your problem is not solved until your initial state (sitting in the cinema) corresponds to your desired goal state (sitting in the cinema). Problem solved! And what if no practical solution to a problem can be found immediately? This is exactly when we use our powers of thought and creative imagination.

If you are looking for a good decision, you will find it she!

According to Duncker, thought processes start when we are dissatisfied with our initial situation and at the same time have no immediate idea for a solution. The aim of these thought processes is to find out what means (or actions) we can use to get closer to our goal. The process of problem solving can therefore be described as reducing the differences between the given and the target state. The solution strategy derived from this is as follows:

  1. target state analyze
  2. initial state analyze
  3. difference between the initial and target state
  4. Selected Differences gradually reduce through sub-goals


Breiter, HC, Aharon, I, Kahneman, D, Dale, A, & Shizgal, P (2001). Functional imaging of neural responses to expectancy and experience of monetary gains and losses. Neuron, 30, 619-639.

Duncker, K. (1945). On problem solving. Psychological Monographs, 58, Whole No. 270

Haidt, J., & Joseph, C. (2008). The moral mind: How five sets of innate intuitions guide the development of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules. In P Carruthers, S Laurence & S Stich (Eds.), The innate mind Volume 3: Foundations and the future (pp. 367-391). New York: Oxford University Press.

Sanfey, AG (2007). Social decision-making: Insights from game theory and neuroscience. Science, 318, 598-602.


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