Sleep On It: The Neuroeconomics of Striking When The Iron Is Cold

David Krueger MD

There are few true emergencies in life. Investing in a stock, deciding on a summer vacation special good until 5:00 P.M., or purchasing mulch from the guy who’s only going to be in the neighborhood selling it until noon—are not some of them. (My 11:15 A.M. decision resulted in a front yard mushroom farm within two weeks.)

In an excited state of mind, the compelling stories of a hot deal will look different in a cool state of mind the next day. A hot stock tip, a business deal gone sour, a family tragedy, all may create an alarm response and an emotional state of mind geared for survival rather than logic. Or, a compelling social interaction may engage a powerful brain circuit that makes us give money to strangers.

Each thought and feeling has a chemical consequence. The chemicals of emotion alter mind and body. Personal experience determines what software program (state of mind) to process the data, and how to proceed.

The following considerations apply to decision-making regarding emotions and choices, catalogued by the chemical mediator.

1. Adrenalin/Cortisol: The Emergency System

When incoming data resembles threat or danger, it triggers an emotional and biochemical response within a fraction of a second. While necessary for survival, adrenalin and cortisol hijack the logical, rational brain. Emotion-based judgments where rational ones should prevail may misjudge information. This automatic alarm system may cause mistaken perception, and reaction.

Additionally, increased tension produces emotional regression. With increased tension and advanced conflict, the stress response reaction can move someone into a more emotional pattern characteristic of an earlier age. Increased emotion also narrows perspective; focus becomes more restricted to the more recent event when emotion prevails.

2. Dopamine: The Pleasure System

Dopamine mediates the excitement of anticipating a reward or pleasure. Someone can create a cult-like following by the promise of great possibility coupled with the vagueness of hazy dreams. The result: People are stimulated to see what they want to see. Like money, people project their own desires onto the story and see their wishes crystallized into an illusion of reality. The essentials here: Dopamine plus a projection screen (a good story).

3. Norepinephrine: The Maintenance System

We believe that certain accomplishments and acquisitions will give us lasting satisfaction. However, a new possession, such as a car, will quickly be assimilated into our bank of possessions and no longer be the subject of intense focus and desire. Receiving a reward shuts down the anticipatory release of dopamine, diminishing the energy and pleasure. The central nervous system shifts to the maintenance mode (necessary from an economic and evolutionary perspective), primarily mediated by norepinephrine.

The fastest way to relinquish a desire, or to stop noticing something, may be to buy it.

4. Oxytocin: The Social Connection System

Social interactions stimulate the release of the neurochemical oxytocin, especially when we are trusted; this induces a desire to reciprocate that trust we have been shown, even with strangers.
People engaged in cons know how to stimulate oxytocin. In David Mamet’s film, “House of Games,” the confidence man played by Joe Mantegna explained to a previous mark, “It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”

Think about the trust that large numbers of people were given by bankers in the form of credit and mortgages. That trust was reciprocated; both sides suffered, as well as some innocent bystanders.

A Remedy?

“I’ll think about it,” is a decision.

“I’ll get back to you,” is an option.

“I’ll sleep on it,” is a choice.

These decisions allow you to pause between the pick and the purchase. [See 14 Ways to Outsmart Your Brain to Spend Less in this Blog Archives]. “Sleeping on it” allows movement through different states of mind to fresh perspectives the next day. Most importantly, it allows moving these neurochemically-mediated responses from the foreground to the background for a balanced decision