Does memory Serve?

How can two people, using the same facts, arrive at different decisions? Because you can’t always believe what you think, says Len Williamson. Cognitive-based interventions, however, can help us achieve better outcomes

David Bohm1 argues that our thoughts are a reflex just like the knee jerk that follows the doctor’s rubber hammer. External stimulus is the hammer, our senses the knee and the thought we have, the reflex. Libet2 presents evidence to show that our conscious thoughts are a post-event rationalisation of what occurred, with the decision to act taken microseconds earlier in our subconscious. Wegner3 tells us our conscious will is an illusion.

I’m telling you all this to get you looking at the way you think and make decisions. There are some surprising things going on – things that are often not in the best interests of the outcomes we seek.

So, what kind of interventions can help us – and our clients – achieve better outcomes?

We use our conscious and unconscious thoughts to make decisions. Cognitive science has shown that our decisions are heavily influenced by our own theories of the world, our memories and what we select from the environment. It has also shown that our decision-making processes are subject to biases that often work against our interests. Add to this our equal weighting of the assumptions we make about facts, and it’s no surprise our decisions are often found to be wanting.

Understanding how we make a decision presents us with an opportunity to achieve even better outcomes.

How do we decide?

Cognitive and Neuroscience research is still at the early stages of understanding how we think and make decisions. One view is that a decision flows from theories we hold about the world, the memories we have and the information we select from the environment.

If you give two people the same information they often make a different decision – and are fully committed to their choice. How can both believe they’re right?

The thesis for my Masters in Cognitive and Decision Science4 looked at the decisions that football team managers Arsene Wenger (Arsenal) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Manchester United) took in the football transfer market.

Over a long period in which both had similar access to funds and possible purchases, they rarely competed for the same player. By studying what they said and wrote about the purchases they made it is possible to draw distinctions about what is important to them in making their decision.

For example, one is focused on financial prudence and developing young talent to maturity and the other interested in proven stars and is comfortable with debt.

I leave you to judge which you believe is right, based on the evidence available. Your theories of the world, memories and the information you select will give you your choice. If you look around yourself you will see examples of different people using the same information to arrive at different decisions.

Theories about the world

People’s theories about the way the world works build up over their lives. As time progresses these views become increasingly difficult to change. We experience the world, make sense out of it, observe what happens and create a theory. This is part of our survival process and enables us to react quickly when faced with a threat – or an opportunity.

We are designed to be more interested in a threat1, by a factor of 2.25:1, versus an opportunity. Our cognitive machinery is there to protect us and give us the best chance of survival. Our theories are full of assumptions that we treat as if they were facts. The trade-off in the survival game is between speed of response to an experience versus time to evaluate the factual accuracy of an assumption.

You would rather rely on an assumption if it saves your life than spend more time working out if it is factually correct.

If your theories are appropriate for the context you are in you will often succeed. However, in a world of rapidly changing context, it is important to know when your theories are no longer appropriate – before failure informs you.

What can you or your clients do to intervene with your own theories to get better outcomes?


1 Recognise that your theories are just that – dependent on assumptions

This is the easiest and most powerful intervention. Write down your theory about something and the assumptions you are making, then ask the question: ‘How could the opposite be true?’ This will open up new possibilities.

2 Spend time with people who have different theories to you and listen generously to them

What are the differences in assumptions and theories between you, and is there something better for both of you?

3 Recognise the amplification of potentially negative threat in your theories and assumptions versus opportunity

This can lead to a dramatic change in how you will act. If you scale down a threat by a factor of 2.25, consider what you would do. This can be life changing for many as they reduce the risks that go with changing and pursue what they see as the opportunity they would like to pursue.


The paradox of memories is that they are created and available to us in the present yet are not a true representation of what occurred in the past. A memory is created in the present from a combination of a very small number of attributes stored about the past and what we use in the moment to create the current form of this memory. It’s why witnesses in courtrooms can be unintentionally unreliable and situations you know were unpleasant can be called up with happy feelings.

There are many cognitive experiments demonstrating how we unknowingly change our memories from what occurred. It has also been shown that if there is a conflict between a memory, a theory we hold and information in the current environment, we will change our memory.

So we are using these incomplete memories in the decisions we make. How can we intervene with our memory process to get better outcomes?


1 Recognise your memory is not a true reconstruction of what occurred

See it as a story you are telling yourself about the past. Explore if there is a better set of assumptions you can make to create a more powerful and useful memory.

2 Select a different memory for the decision you are going to make

Theories and bias may have led you to a particular memory, but there could be better memories to select in support of different choices available to you.

Environmental information

It isn’t possible to consider every piece of available information when making a decision. Time and processing capability prevent this. You therefore have to make choices about the information you are going to use. This will depend on what you are intending to do and your theories about the world. For example, if you are going to post a letter your senses will be tuned in to seeking post boxes and your theories will guide you to where they might be. You will ignore everything unimportant to this task.

At work the task you have chosen as important will determine the information you select, and lead you to ignore other information that may be useful. What interventions can you make to consider other information that will improve your outcomes?


1 Notice the information you select

The next step is to search for alternative information and see what impact it has on the possible decisions available to you.

2 Consider a different task

Look at this information in relation to the original task and see what new insights become available to you.

3 Discuss with other people what information they are using

Explore what that might do to your possibilities.

Don’t believe it

Thinking and making decisions is something you do all the time. It might be a reflex and it may also be an illusion that we have any control over it. Understanding how you think and make decisions is a first step to making better decisions. Using some of the interventions in this article will often give you new insights and help you make better decisions with better outcomes.

Len Williamson is an executive coach at Praesta

References and further information

  • 1 D Bohm, Thought as a System, Routledge, 1994
  • 2 B Libet, W Elwood, JR Wright, B Feinstein and D K Pearl, “Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience”, in Brain, 102(1), pp193-224, 1979
  • 3 D M Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will, MIT, Bradford Books, 2002
  • 4 L Williamson, “Arsene Wenger vs. Alex Ferguson: The role of causal models in management decision making”, UCL, 2009 (available from the author:
  • D Kahneman and A Tversky, “Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk”, in Econometrica, 47(2), p263, 1979
  • D Ariely, Predictably Irrational, Harper 2008
  • J Baron, Thinking and Deciding (4th ed), New York, NY: Cambridge Press, 2008

Coaching at Work, Volume 6, Issue 4

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