How to Take Charge of Your Moods and Your Choices

Why does Alaska have the highest rate of organ donation in the country?  It might have something to do with Sarah Palin.

Most of us confront the question of whether or not we want our organs harvested every time we apply for a new driver’s license.  Typically, we have to choose between checking a box if we want to be donors or leaving the box empty if we don’t.

This is how most donor forms were designed. Then researchers wondered what they could do to increase the number of participants.  They came up with the bright idea of giving people a choice between two boxes:  mark the yes box to donate, mark the no box to decline.  The reasoning went this way:  if people can opt out passively, then they’re not necessarily thinking about the choice in front of them, whereas having to choose one way or the other will force them to consider their options more carefully, resulting in more affirmatives.

The reasoning makes perfect sense.  However, people are not always reasonable.

According to NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, that’s what Judd Kessler of the Wharton School and Alvin Roth of Stanford discovered when they tested applicants in California and Massachusetts.  Contrary to expectations, the open-ended option encouraged greater participation; forcing people to choose yes-or-no made the number of donors drop.

The question, of course, is why?


Have you ever had the experience of someone telling you to do something you’ve already made up your mind that you want to do?  If you’re like most people, you probably decided in the next instant that you no longer wanted to do it.

The reason is obvious.  Human beings are creatures of ego.  We don’t like being told what to do.  We want to be in charge.  The moment someone asserts command over us, our sense of independence pushes us in the other direction.  This explains why manipulation through reverse psychology can be so effective (as long as it isn’t recognized for what it is).

In the case of organ donation, the open-ended choice allowed people to feel that they were making a choice that was truly theirs.  When forced to choose between alternatives, people may have felt pressured to participate and reflexively resisted by opting out.


So here’s the takeaway.  If you feel backed into a corner, your natural reaction will be to push back.  But just because we’re being pressured doesn’t mean that the choice is a bad one.  Surrendering before external pressure because we’re weak or timid is no worse than digging in our heels because we’re too stubborn to relinquish control.

Therefore, whenever you feel under pressure, take a step back and look at your options objectively.  Try to separate the choice from the situation.  By recognizing that emotions may be clouding your thinking, you have a better chance of neutralizing their influence over how you ultimately decide.

We can apply same strategy when working with others as well.  If you want to influence other people to make better choices, be a consultant:  present the options with as little pressure as possible.  As long as people feel in charge of their own decision making process, they’re less likely to circle the wagons to protect the status quo.


But Doctor Kessler discovered something else as well.  When subjects who had already made their choices one way or the other were later offered a chance to change their donor status, they were 22 times more likely to opt in than to opt out.  Doctor Kessler believes that when we have to make decisions we haven’t had time to think through, we’re much more likely to err on the side of caution.  But give us time to consider, and we’re more likely to follow our hearts.

(No pun intended.)

It’s not surprising that more deliberation leads to more carefully thought-out decisions.  But it does offer a further insight into the workings of the human ego.

Here’s another experience you may have had.  You’re deep into a heated debate, growing more passionate by the minute, when it suddenly dawns upon you that you’re actually wrong and that your antagonist is right.  Do you a) immediately concede the point, or b) start arguing even more vociferously?

If you’re like most people, you’ve gotten way too invested in your position by that point to back down now.  The realization that you’ve been wrong all along only prods you to save face by fighting harder to win.

It’s okay to be wrong, okay to change your mind, okay to admit error.  Much better, in fact, to acknowledge one’s own mistake than to have someone else discover it and bring it to light.

But our willingness to concede error decreases in proportion to the intensity of our emotions.  Conversely, the more comfortable we feel when considering the alternatives before us, the more likely we are to see different alternatives with equal clarity and objectivity.  Even when that means we may have to admit we were wrong.


So avoid acting in the heat of the moment; take your time and keep cool.  Let ideas percolate before putting them into practice, whether you’re sending off emails, offering criticism to your spouse, or making career decisions.  And all the more so when it comes to tattoos and casual dalliances.  Act in haste, repent at leisure is a cliché for good reason.


So what does all this have to do with Sarah Palin?

Well, not that much, really.  But it does have something to do with petroleum and drilling in the Alaskan wilderness.

The state of Alaska has vast territory, few people, and massive reserves of oil.  Since 1976, every resident receives a dividend from state oil revenues which, in 2014, put $1884 in each person’s pocket.

So when do you think the Alaska government asks people whether or not they want to be organ donors?  That’s right — in the same envelopes that contain their annual oil dividends.

Now ask yourself this:  when would you be more likely to make some magnanimous gesture toward helping others — as you open up a check for a thousand dollars or after standing in line for half an hour and having to contend with governmental bureaucracy?


It’s a no-brainer.  We all want to be good, want to be kind, want to be giving.  We all want to the right thing and consider ourselves good people.

So when it comes to decision-making, we can do better by creating the circumstances that produce better decisions, both for ourselves and others

Want to sell your house?  Make sure you have chocolate chip cookies baking in the over when prospective buyers show up at the door.  Want to ask your boss for a raise?  Try to time your request to coincide with his son making the dean’s list or his daughter’s engagement.

And what puts you in a good mood?  Mellow music, inspirational stories, walks in the park, phone calls to the kids, a clever email, the company of friends… any of these is only an arm’s reach away, and any one of them can instantaneously dispel frustration at work, stress over money, fear of national security, and disgust with politicians.  Sure, we should listen to the news enough to know what’s going on, but too much involvement in the problems of the world is poison to the soul.

But we can do even more than that.  In a brilliantly entertaining and informative Ted Talk, psychologist Shawn Achor outlines a simple formula for transforming our brains to become more optimistic and generally positive:

Gratitude.  Research shows that writing down three new reasons for being grateful every day for three weeks rewires the brain to see the world through a brighter lens.

Journaling.  Writing about one positive experience in the last 24 hours allows your brain to reexperience the event.  Instead of adding layers of bitterness by reliving unpleasant incidents, we can add sweetness to our lives by revisiting the good things that happen to us.

Exercise.  Taking care of our bodies makes us more disciplined and reinforces our awareness that behavior matters.

Meditation.  Focusing on single, simple thoughts is the best antidote to our overloaded, over-scheduled, over-stimulated lives.

Random Acts of Kindness.  Something as small as sending an appreciative email once a day can reframe our outlook and extend feelings of positivity to others.

Instead of waiting for happiness to happen to us, we need to go out and create it for ourselves.  When we do, we will make better decisions, enjoy greater success, and bring greater joy to the people around us and to the world.


A note of full disclosure:  the author does not participate in organ donation for religious reasons, but has only respect and admiration for those who do.


Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures.   Request the first four chapters of his new book Proverbial Beauty:  Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages at this link for free or order now on Amazon.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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