Understanding what is happening within our brains when making decisions under stress can help improve performance under pressure. In this article Charles Boffin provides a helpful overview and some useful tips for ways to improve your decision making during incidents.
Much has been written on the subject of decision making – how to make the best, effective, decisions by gathering and analysing information, evaluating options, and selecting the best course for success. But for business continuity and crisis management teams, often time is a luxury that we do not have and rapid, structured, decision making is required.
There is a plethora of activities and structures that we can put in place to improve the outcomes of these decisions, ranging from exercising and rehearsal, through to support processes such as developing detailed plans. But what is biologically happening to us at the point that decisions are made and how can we improve outcomes?
The brain mechanics
Our brains appear wired in ways that enable us, often unconsciously, to make the best decisions possible with the information we’re given. In simplest terms, the process has in-built logic at all points. Sights, sounds, and other sensory evidence are entered and registered in sensory circuits in the brain. Other brain cells compile and evaluate each piece of information until a critical threshold is reached and then an outcome — a decision — is made.
Where this happens depends upon the nature of the decision. For both abstract and concrete decisions relying on planning and reasoning, the focus of attention is the frontal lobe. But for decisions based on visual information which integrates evidence supplied by the senses, the main area of activity is the parietal lobe. And all of this activity in various regions of the brain results from rapid and complex probability calculations in brain cells called neurons that both process and transmit information through electrical impulse.
So far, so good; but when a decision goes wrong and things turn out differently than expected, activity shifts to the orbitofrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain behind the eyes, which enables us to re-evaluate and alter our behaviour or change the decisions(s) concerned.
For business continuity teams involved in a recovery situation, there will be a healthy level of activity in all areas as we evaluate ‘rational’ information, respond to new information appearing and re-evaluate approach and activities based on the outcomes of decisions made. A real ‘whole brain’ approach!
Time is of the essence
When faced with rapid decision making in emergency situations, other factors come into play:
‘Once bitten, twice shy’: although we need emotions to make decisions, their input means we’re not the cold rational agents we might wish to be in times of need. For instance, it has been demonstrated that the negative emotional impact of losses is twice as intense as the positive effect of gains, which affects our decision making in predictable ways. For example, we may continue to follow a bad course rather than make a change as we believe that the situation will either correct itself or not be as bad as expected, particularly if we have followed this particular course before.
Logic vs emotions
Research suggests that the best process for making decisions under pressure is to use data and numbers to inform our intuition. Avoid falling prey to mind trick, biases or external factors. Power dynamics and ego can also lead to poor decisions, and decision makers should pursue an approach that is inquiry-based rather than advocacy-based.
From a biological perspective, stress changes how our brain functions, affecting, amongst other things, the striatal dopaminergic reward systems (addictions or pleasure centre). And, in addition to causing these physical changes, stress can also influence our decisions. For example, under acute stress, positive outcomes about a prior decision can be associated with increased risk-taking behaviour on the next decision i.e. it worked last time so it will certainly work again, ignoring the fact that there may be a change in circumstances. In addition, neuroimaging data indicates that stress may even directly influence neural responses to feedback: responses to positive and negative feedback are greatly reduced under stress as compared to when there is no stress. This suggests that the subjective value of decisions may change if the levels of stress vary.
In short, it’s not a level playing field in stressful situations when evaluating factors and reaching conclusions.
Men and women
Men and women appear to respond differently to stress. Under stress, men take more risks but women tend to be more conservative. From a physiological viewpoint, this gender difference is evidenced by differing responses to stress in two parts of the brain associated with reward-related decision making – the dorsal striatum and anterior insula.
So, all well and good, but what are the implications of the above biological issues for decision makers during an incident? Here are some helpful tips:
- Whole brain – recognise that decision making processes can be affected by a number of factors – stress, emotions, even gender.
- Look forward when making the decision, don’t just focus on the present i.e. what will be the consequences of this particular action? From an evolutionary perspective, we are programmed to resolve ‘now’ issues but the world we have created relies on understanding the impact and longer-term view and outcomes of our actions.
- Prioritise decisions – which ones need to be made now, not necessarily what are the easiest ones to make. Unless we are James Bond faced with a ticking warhead, even in the most time-sensitive situations, there can be time to evaluate.
- Gut instinct is not irrational, it is often due to rapid assimilation of experience.
- Rehearse, rehearse and rehearse but understand that exercising is to be familiar with general process and not a precise list of activities as these will be dictated by the event in play.
- Don’t be side-tracked – dismiss irrelevancies.
- Expect the unexpected – listen but don’t hear what you expect to hear.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help but stay in control.