The Hot and Cool Brain: Two Ways of Making Decisions

Sometimes, depending on if we are upset, emotional, or in a similar state of mind, we are of two minds . . . literally.

Since at least the 1960s, some psychologists have been researching that state of our brains when we are in the process of making decisions. And, as author Walter Mischel has described in detail in his book, “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control,” the brain has basically two systems: the hot system and the cool system.

Our hot system, which “which underlies short-run impatience,” is “activated automatically by immediate rewards and triggers the Go! Response of ‘I want it now!’” According to Mischel, “The limbic system consists of the primitive brain structures located under the cortex on top of the brain stem, which developed early in our evolution.” He continues: “These structures regulate basic drives and emotions essential for survival, from fear and anger to hunger and sex.”

When we make decisions when our hot systems are activated, these decisions tend to be not planned and impulsive. Generally speaking, this isn’t always in our best interest. When we see a donut that looks delicious, for example, but we just committed to a new diet in order to lose weight, the hot system triggers the impulse we feel to grab the donut and eat it. Moreover, as the author notes, stress can erode a person’s cool system and activate the hot system.

The brain’s cool system, on the other hand, “is cognitive, complex, reflective, and slower to activate. It is centered primarily in the prefrontal cortex (PFC),” as Mischel observes. He continues: “This cool, controlled system is crucial for future-oriented decisions and self-control efforts. . .” Finally, the cool system, according to the author, is attuned to the informational aspects of stimuli and enables rational, reflective, and strategic behavior.

When it comes to making decisions, then, it’s generally better that they take place within the cool system rather than the brain’s hot system. That said, however, the hot system is there for a reason: It evolved prior to the human species. And, when humans did finally make it on the evolutionary scene, the hot system helped us avoid predators, hunt for food, and make other instantaneous decisions. But in contemporary, post-industrial societies like the United States, success in large part has to do with an individual’s intelligence and his or her level of self-control. Delaying gratification into the future in order to accomplish long-term goals is a skill that serves us well.

To conclude, much of decision-making takes place within the context of the brain’s hot and cool systems. As mentioned above, the hot system immediately reacts to pleasurable and immediate stimuli, whereas the brain’s cool system is more reflective and is focused on long-term planning.

Mischel, W. (2014). The marshmallow test: mastering self-control. Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY.

Brooke Lamberti

Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

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