UNCP5569: How We Decide

Jeff Lamoureux

Senior Lecturer in Psychology

“…we are far less rational in our decision making… [than we think we are]. Our irrational behaviors are
neither random nor senseless – they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of
mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains.”
     — Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”
     ― Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Advice for a Young Investigator

“Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."
"And he has Brain."
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain."
There was a long silence.
"I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything.”
     ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Course Description

Why did I eat at “White Mountain” at 11PM last night? And how can my friends convince me to go to Cityside when I know I should be studying? In this seminar, we will approach the capstone experience through the lenses of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. We’ll focus on how the mind and brain function to produce the decisions we ourselves make. The class is open to students from all majors, and there is no science prerequisite. Throughout the semester, we will reflect on our own past decisions, and consider alternative decision making strategies for the future.

Course Goals

As with all Capstone Courses, the primary goals of this course are two-fold:

  1. to provide an opportunity to reflect on students’ time and educational experiences at Boston College
  2. to consider the process of making long-term future commitments in four key areas:
    • work & career
    • relationships
    • society
    • spirituality

In order to respect the personal views and goals of individual students in the course, we will define spirituality broadly as the process of personal transformation based on meaningful, personal reflection and growth. Throughout the semester, we will consider how our basic decision-making processes may be defining the personal path we are taking in all domains of our life. Specifically, this course will approach the reflective capstone experience through the lenses of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, focusing on our current understanding of how the mind/brain functions as a way to help us understand the decisions we ourselves make. Non-science majors should note that although we will discuss a fair bit about how the brain functions, no science background is required other than the ability to learn about how the brain and mind function. Indeed, many of the readings are more focused on the ways that people go about making decisions, without reference to the brain. Moreover, I will start the semester off with a general overview of how major brain areas contribute to our thoughts and emotions; thus no previous knowledge of neuroscience is required. As in all broadening experiences, our discussions will benefit greatly from a roster comprised of students with diverse backgrounds.


The readings center on how brain function and our evolutionary history affects fundamental processes that may affect the decisions you make in life. Our basic perceptions and other cognitive processes may not be as accurate as you think, and our individual life experiences significantly alter these basic functions, effectively altering who we are. We will read selected chapters from a variety of current opinion related to how people make decisions. (Don’t worry! We aren’t reading all of these books cover-to-cover!) Readings will be drawn from the following: 

  • The Human Brain Book by Rita Carter. DK Publishing, Inc, 2009.
  • Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in a Modern World by Hank Davis. Prometheus Books, 2009.
  • Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom. Broadway Books, 2014.
  • How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Mariner Books, 2010.
  • Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions by Dan Ariely. Harper Perennial, 2010.
  • Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts by Stanislas Dehaene. Penguin Books, 2014.
  • The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by VS Ramachandran. Norton, 2012.
  • Out of Our Heads: Why You are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessens from the Biology of Consciousness by Alva Noe. Hill and Wang, 2010.
  • Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s “Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, Meaning”  [video series]
  • Adaptation to Life by George E Valiant. Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaniga. Ecco, 2011.

Course Structure and Requirements

The course will function as a discussion-based seminar, with a heavy focus on continuous reflective writing.

  • After the first couple class meetings, comprised of foundational overview of basic decision-making processes and brain function, students will be required to write a 3-4 page, guided reflection paper prior to each meeting that relates their own experiences to the concepts currently under consideration. Each week, two students will lead a discussion of the assigned reading, inviting sharing of ideas from other students’ reflections. I will provide a prompt each week to assist students in organizing their reflections. A sample reflection prompt could read something like…
    • Hank Davis suggests that our current cognitive processes reflect our species’ evolutionary history. Please relate an example from your own life in which your “primitive thinking” may have led you to either a bad – or good! – decision. After describing the experience, consider other strategies you could employ in future similar situations. Possible situations rife with possibilities include social activities, choices in extra-curriculars, relationship decisions, instances of impulsivity or substantial planning, etc.
  • Students will also be required to complete a more comprehensive 12-15 page term paper to be described in more detail later. Generally, this paper will provide students an opportunity to more holistically reflect on their experiences at BC, and how these experiences have shaped the personal priorities, motivation, and cognitive abilities that will impact important future decisions. 


Grades for the course will determined based on the following requirements:

Class Preparation & Participation: 20%

Leadership in Guided Discussions: 20%

Weekly Reflection Responses: 30%

Term Paper: 20%

Neuroanatomy Structure/Function Quiz: 10%

Schedule of Topics

Week 1:  Introduction and Overview of Scientific Method / Research on Decision Making

Week 2:  Overview of Human Cognitive Processes and Functional Neuroanatomy

Weeks 3-4:  Evolution and Cognitive of Decision Making

Weeks 5-6:  Attention and Perceptual Processes

Weeks 7-8:  “Spock vs Kirk” – Frontal Lobe Executive Processes vs Limbic System

Weeks 9-10:  Personality, Art, and Consciousness Inside and Outside of the Brain

Weeks 10-11:  Aging Gracefully – Coping Styles, the Mature Brain, and the Harvard Grant Study

Weeks 12-13:  The Big Picture – Managing Expectations and Preparing for the Future