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Bandersnatch: How to make good decisions

“There’s messages in every game. Like Pac-man. You know what Pac stands for? PAC. Program and Control. He’s Program and Control Man. The whole thing’s a metaphor. All he can do is consume. He’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head. And even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He comes right back in the other side. People think it’s a happy game. It’s not a happy game. It’s a fucking nightmare world. And the worst thing is? It’s real and we live in it.”

A bit bleak, but interesting all the same. After watching the hit series Black Mirror’s first film ‘Bandersnatch’, I have chosen to speak about the concepts of decision making and free will from a psychological perspective.

We make thousands of decisions everyday outside of our conscious control. If we were to weigh up the pros and cons of every choice, we wouldn't have much time in the day. So our brain decides what warrants our attention. Our brains are influenced by everything around us and therefore, the environments we choose to engage in impacts how our brains make decisions. This is why so much money is spent on advertisements. If we walk past a billboard of coke everyday and one day we’re thirsty and want a drink, our brain will decide that coke would be a good drink of choice. So the big companies put the big products in our face as much as possible. On our televisions, on our Spotify, and on our social media newsfeeds. “All he can do is consume”.

So does that mean we have no free will? Absolutely not. As I’ve mentioned, it is only the minor decisions that are determined without conscious awareness, such as the shoe brand we wear, or the toothpaste we use. But the decision to move abroad, to take the job, to marry? These decisions are constant, conscious, and under our control. We generally take a long time to think about these and while our unconscious will still influence these decisions, it is our education and our experience that will help us reach these verdicts. Currently, parents try to teach their children to make decisions on the basis of safety. Don’t hang around with dangerous people, don't drive too fast, don’t do drugs. However, there is no specific rubric to determine how your decisions benefit your mental health. And remember, while physical health is quantity of life, mental health is quality of life, so there’s no reason why it should not be considered.

When we make decisions, we want to be confident that the outcome will result in us feeling better. In economics, the term opportunity cost refers to a situation where the value outweighs the cost. However, the concepts of values and costs are subjective, which is why there are no instructions on how to make a good decision. What I might see as valuable, you might see as useless. When understanding value and cost, the best way we can form an objective measure is to understand the opportunity cost in terms of mental health. After all, humans want to feel good and they don’t want to feel bad. In essence, people want to feel positive emotions such as joy and excitement rather than negative emotions such as sadness and worry. Remember, emotions are just brain chemicals that make us feel good (such as serotonin) or brain chemical deficiencies that make us feel mental pain (such as a lack of dopamine). Consequently, we should teach people to make decisions on the basis of how their actions affect their own emotions and the emotions of others. We should teach people to make the decision that makes them and others feel positive emotions.

Alas, the bad news is that it isn’t that simple as humans are complicated beings. Because we have ideal selves that we want to attain, what makes us feel positive emotions in the short term might make us feel negative emotions in the long term. For example, eating a chocolate bar right now will make you feel joy now, but guilt when you realise you've broken your new year new me status. To overcome this, people need the skill of delayed gratification, which is the ability to resist temptation of an immediate reward in preference for a later reward. In 1960, Walter Mischel carried out an experiment on children known as the Marshmallow experiment. He gave children one marshmallow each and told them that they could eat it but if they waited a few minutes, they would then receive another marshmallow. Those who waited had the skill of delaying gratification. He then investigated the futures of the children who did not eat the first marshmallow (had the skill of delaying gratification) and the futures of the children who did eat the marshmallow. The results were phenomenal. The children who were capable of delaying gratification had more fulfilling careers, relationships and health when they grew up. These children had an understanding that waiting for the second marshmallow would result in greater emotional benefits long term than eating the first marshmallow short term. The good news is that along with external strategies, delayed gratification can be learned, meaning that we do have control over our decision making.

But how do we know if decisions are going to make us feel positive or negative emotions? Well we learn from experience. If you give a child cheese as a treat and it makes them cry, then we know that cheese makes the child feel negative emotions, which then makes you feel negative emotions. We learn from this and we don't do it again. This is why travelling, meeting new people and experiencing different intimate relationships is so important. It helps us develop an understanding of what makes us and others feel positive and negative emotions. And then what about the demons mentioned in Bandersnatch? Well they’re what we imagine will happen if we make the wrong decision. But just like the character says. They’re all in our head. If we make the wrong decision, we just have to adapt and make sure we learn from it and don’t do it again. So this education can only provide a solid foundation. The rest is up to you. You need to go out. You need to meet new people, and you need to understand what makes you and them feel positive emotions.

On a final note, after teaching this to children, one child who has had behavioural difficulties throughout school asked “ why do we need to make other people feel positive emotions?”. The philosophical query made me ponder for a moment, and then I responded quite honestly “Human beings are selfish. We need to make other people feel positive emotions because it makes ourselves feel positive emotions". This is the basis of compassion focused therapy. It is incredibly simple but so true. And if you can surround yourself in an environment of the reciprocal giving of positive emotions, then that is a loving environment. And then you can live in a happy game. After all, the difference is that pacman has nobody to share positive emotions with!

Yours Sincerely,

The Motus Movement.


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