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I've quit...but should I go?

So you have handed in your resignation and you have now received a flurry of offers and counter-offers from your employers to induce you to stay. Your resolve to leave the organisation is now being tested, and you find yourself second-guessing your original intent to quit; you are torn between leaving and staying! Welcome to cognitive dissonance, a psychological no-man's-land where you question the veracity of your initial decision, and wonder if indeed you have made the wrong choice. It is the mind's version of being stuck between a rock and a hard place!

This can happen in any situation, not just in a resignation. When you are in two minds about something, and where you feel that you are being pulled in opposite directions, that is when there is dissonance. And if you cannot address that, you will end up being paralysed as to what to do next. In this article, I shall share how the brain works, how decisions are made, the power of your subconscious in decision making, and how you can overcome cognitive dissonance by listening to your heart.

Primacy of the status quo

Before we move on, I would like to acknowledge the power of status quo. Some people are wont to move out of stasis because they dislike to venture into the unknown. They use the phrase, "Better the devil that you know than the one that you don't". This is the reason why battered wives will remain in an abusive relationship, and mistreated staff, under a bad boss. They cannot contemplate moving on, because of the uncertainty that change brings with it. There is comfort in knowing that some things don't change, and if they can somehow learn to live with the status quo, they will be okay. Unfortunately, it is only when the pain of staying is more than the pain of leaving, will they take action; oftentimes on the back of a catastrophic event! It does not have to be so painful!

How we make decisions

Neuroscience has confirmed the way the brain biologically handles decisions. As you may know, there are three parts of the brain - the reptilian, the mammalian, and the primate brains.

Structure of the brain

The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain, and this links the brain stem to all the parts of the body. This is the part that controls all involuntary human functions like breathing, swallowing, digestion, etc.

The mammalian brain is also known as the limbic system, and in its centre is the amygdala, which controls the secretion of neurochemicals like adrenaline, the "fight-or-flight" hormone. This is the seat of emotion and also the centre of action. So, for instance, when a man sees an attractive lady, the mammalian brain will trigger hormones and cause him to act upon them, for example, to approach her and chat her up. Hence, the limbic brain is responsible for action in a person.

The primate brain is also known as the neocortex; "neo" meaning "new", and "cortex" meaning "bark". So this is the newest part of the brain, and is the seat of reasoning. Here is where all the higher order thinking takes place, like judgement, introspection, and decision-making.

Now, when an external stimulus hits the brain, for example a fast moving car speeding towards you, your senses will first send the information to the mammalian brain, which will secrete adrenaline to trigger the fight or flight response, so that you can jump out of its path. There is no time to think and contemplate what that is coming at you. A split second after that, the information is routed to your primate brain which will process the information and tell your mammalian brain whether the threat was real, by which time the mammalian brain had already reacted to it; or find out that there was really no threat and your body resumes its normal functions.

In other words, your mammalian brain, the seat of your emotions, causes you to act; and the only way to overcome this is to apply higher-order thinking brought about by your primate brain. But since there is a split second time lag between the two, you may short-circuit the process, and act on impulse. This is the reason why we have been taught to count to 10 before reacting to anything because we want the neocortex to take over the thought process, and avert a possible bad decision - like buying the new Louis Vuitton bag when you already have five!

When the primate brain takes over

This is all well and good to keep us balanced in thinking vis-à-vis doing. Except that things can come to a head when we over-complicate issues, and apply rigorous thinking to ALL situations. Our education system has taught us that we need to keep emotions in check, preferring thinking over reacting. While we acknowledge that we cannot allow our emotions to run amok and reduce ourselves into a bunch of mindless buffoons, we must also acknowledge that we have traded our survival instincts - jumping out of the path of an oncoming car; or in our not-too-distant past, a charging sabre-tooth tiger - for contemplation. We hush our instincts in favour of data and analysis. But we need to understand this - our mammalian brain is far more evolved than our primate brain, so our more matured reactions have been superseded by our less-evolved thinking. It is like putting a teenager in the drivers' seat of a Lamborghini - it can lead to disastrous effects! And one of these effects is cognitive dissonance - when your neocortex and your limbic brains pull you in opposite directions.

So what should we do in this case?

System 1 and System 2

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner for behavioural economics, wrote in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, that these two systems are called 1 and 2. System 1 is the fast and automatic system where we react with little or no effort. That is our limbic brain at work. System 2 is the slower, effortful mental activities that are associated with our neocortex. Kahneman says,

"When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book."

In other words, we have fashioned ourselves out of System 2, thinking that this is the more obvious position we should be in cognitively, when in reality, it is System 1 that matters. Kahneman continues,

"System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification."

However, System 2 - our conscious thinking - has the last word when it comes to complex matters and when things get difficult. It, and only it, has the ability to override System 1.

And now here comes the doozy. Kahneman continues,

"System 1 is generally very good at what it does: its models of familiar situations are accurate, its short-term predictions are usually accurate as well, and its initial reactions to challenges are swift and generally appropriate."

Meaning to say, left to its own devices, System 1 will do just fine for us. Barring the biases that System 1 may be subject to (and this is something we shall discuss sometime soon), we can all be relatively well served heeding our "gut instinct".

But this is NOT what we have been taught to believe, and therein lies the rub; our cognitive dissonance is a result of us NOT heeding our gut instinct, preferring to go about solving our problems with our lazy System 2 thinking. (Yes, System 2 is lazy, and is prone to taking short-cuts which may also not lead to the right outcome!!! So now, we may be going down an even MORE SLIPPERY slope than we bargained for!)

So, cognitive dissonance is the tussle between Systems 1 and 2, and it usually pays to heed System 1 than System 2! But guess what, we are doing the exact opposite!

Let your gut instinct decide

So, should you stay or should you go (or any other dichotomous decision)? Well, it depends on what your gut tells you, really. So here's what you now need to do...

(1) Calm your mind. Go into a meditative state, using deep breathing to clear whatever residual thoughts you have in it. Do not go to Step 2 until your mind is totally free from any thoughts.

(2) Introduce the first thought into your mind. Maintaining your deep breathing, introduce the first idea into your mind, say, perhaps, to leave the company. Then play out this scenario as vividly as you can, seeing your actions, and the possible outcomes. Then notice how you feel about this.

(3) Introduce the next thought into your mind. When you are done with the first thought, and you have noted how you feel about it, clear your mind, and when you are sufficiently calm, and don't feel any residual emotion connected with the first thought, introduce the next idea - perhaps to stay in the company. Again, paint the picture of that idea as vividly as possible, identifying the emotion that comes with it.

(4) Bring them both together. When you are done with the second idea, clear your mind once again, and when you are sufficiently clear, introduce both ideas to your mind simultaneously, moving from one idea to the other, and seeing which one has a better feeling attached to it. Remember, you are not thinking about this rationally, you are listening to your gut, and letting it show you the direction.

(5) Choose the right option, and the right one is the one that made you feel better.

Aligning yourself with your "gut"

So, should you stay or should you leave? You have the answer inside of you, and the more you choose not to listen to it, the more you will feel the dissonance. As research tells us, our System 1 (the seat of emotion) is seldom wrong, because it is predicated on years of evolution; of keeping our species alive. In fact, some people think that if indeed the human race will not survive the next 10,000 years, it is because we failed to listen to our gut, preferring to think it through, relying on our limited (and lazy), thinking processes. That might not bode too well for us.

I know; it is not easy to justify a decision by saying, "Well, it just feels right." That is our System 2 trying to take over the world. So we let it. We apply all forms of critical thinking, strategic thinking, and decision making sciences to feed both System 1 and System 2. Once we have done all we can to feed the machinery, let System 1 decide. As mentioned earlier, our System 2 will usually take what System 1 tells it, if we allow the process to work. Then, once we have aligned ourselves with what our gut is telling us, we can go ahead and do the work of getting it done.

This will resolve your cognitive dissonance, and you can be happy all the time!


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