Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CLUES What Sharks teach us about Decision-Making

Two questions for you:

1. Do you consider yourself to be a good decision maker? Yes or No?

2. Would you go swimming at the world famous Bondi Beach where a shark attack occurred earlier this year? The beach has been closed on a number of occasions since because a shark has been spotted in the area? Yes or No?

If you answered Yes to question one and No to question 2 then I want you to reconsider your first answer. Are you really a good decision-maker?

Risk, reality and The Almond Effect®

Many people answer No to the second question because of The Almond Effect® which compromises our ability to evaluate risk because we are not thinking clearly, if at all.

The chances of getting killed by a shark are infinitesimally small. The recent non-fatal attack on Bondi Beach was the first in 86 years.

The fatality rate in the early 20th century was 3.8 a year in Australia. In the early 21st century that statistic has decreased to 1.2 deaths each year Australia wide even though every year, due to population increases, better transport and a continuing love of the outdoors, a greater number of people swim in the ocean, race in ocean swim challenges (like me!), paddle beyond the break on surf boards, dive and snorkel, kayak and fish dangling bait off the back of boats.

And of course, there are other reasons for the decreased mortality rates including smaller shark populations, netted beaches, no sewerage being dumped off the coast, faster rescues (if you’re at a patrolled beach) and better emergency medical care.

Decision making involves the assessment of risk

So logically, there is very little risk at all if you are one of the thousands of people who every week, 52 weeks a year, year in year out, swim at Bondi, one beach out of 35,000 kms of Australian coastline.

But our brains are hard-wired for survival and most of our amygdalae have seen Jaws or at least heard of it. Or have picked up on other people’s fear of sharks and so, just to be on the safe side, our brains have popped these images and fears into our own databases of things to be frightened of.

Lodge this data into your thinking brain:

In 2000 – 2006 the number of deaths caused by:
* Horses: 40
* Cows: 20
* Dogs: 12
* Sharks: 10
* Snakes: 3 - 4
* Bees: 2 - 3
* Road accidents: 1616 (in 2007)

* Drowning: 400 times greater risk than being taken by a shark

* Shark experts’ assessment of risk of being attacked by a shark: 264.1 million to 1

Source: AFR Jan 31- Feb 1 2009 quoting NCIS statistics

Logically it is much safer to swim at Bondi than to do almost anything else, including travelling by any means to get there. But unless you are a STAR and have mastered your primeval hard-wiring, my guess is that, even if you do get safely to the beach and go into the water, you now stay close to shore and stay between the red flags – and the Lifeguards are grateful for that!

Emotions, Decision Making and Veto power

The link between sharks and decision making is that you can’t make decisions in the absence of feelings. People who say they can are either kidding themselves, have learned the art of managing their emotions or simply don’t know what the neuroscientists tell us about the way our brain works.

The key to good decision making is to acknowledge and deal with the feelings attached to any decision in a calm considered way and not simply by default. Let me explain.

We know from the work of Joseph le Doux that healthy brains react emotionally first. We‘ve covered this before in previous editions of CLUES.

Our brain’s default position is to minimize danger and maximize reward.

But Benjamin Libet who conducted various neuroscientific experiments from 1983 until his death in 2007 gave us another piece of the brain puzzle. He concluded that we have the power of Veto over our brain’s default position.

This Veto power is at the heart of the STAR method for managing The Almond Effect® - training ourselves to choose our response to a situation as opposed to simply reacting without thinking.

Libet found (and other researchers have subsequently confirmed) that from the moment something enters our brains through our senses for processing until the moment we become consciously aware of it and have a desire to respond is about .2 to .3 of a second.

Libet says we will respond to that stimulus on default in about .5 of a second.

That means we have about .2 of a second to recognise the stimulus for what it is, then choose to override the default position and select the best course of action to take to get the best outcomes.

So in a situation where our amygdala perceives a threat (eg a snake or a piece of black hosepipe), we have .2 of a second to ascertain whether it is a real threat or simply The Almond Effect® kicking in – to ascertain whether the ‘threat’ is truly imperilling our lives or it just feels like it at that instant on the limbic system’s fast and cursory review of past experiences.

In that .2 of a second we can go with the default reaction (jump back or hit it with a spade) or choose what not to do i.e. exercise a power of Veto over our brain’s automatic survival mechanism by quickly focussing attention on the object, registering that it’s just a piece of pipe and therefore choosing to ignore it.

Veto Power in action

What this means is that whether we are about to go swimming at Bondi Beach or are confronted with an angry employee, a request for a ‘quick meeting’ from the boss, a ‘can I talk to you’ phone call from your spouse, an imminent performance management meeting, a ‘look’ from your manager or any number of situations that your amygdala can misinterpret, we have .2 of a second to focus attention and then choose our response.

For an instant we can be a fly on the wall, an impartial observer, someone on the outside looking in.

We can then simply do nothing and go with our default flight/fight/freeze or flock reaction.

Or we can be a STAR. We can Stop – notice that our amygdala is on red alert - we might be shaking, heart racing, blushing, feeling instantly sick etc. Then Think – i.e. do something to calm ourselves down so we can access the logical part of our brains. Only then will we Act, do what we choose to do. Later on, we’ll Rewire, reflect on the situation, on what we learned and embed the positive responses or think of ways to prevent any unhelpful reactions.

What kinds of decisions are being made during the GFC?

Personally I’m much more concerned with bluebottles than sharks. And I’m much more concerned about the decisions of some employers and managers in the current global financial crisis, who may be failing to acknowledge and take into account the impact that their personal fears and insecurities on the quality of their decision-making. These are people who do not understand the power of Veto and the STAR methodology.

Coaches and Mentors have a major role to play here, to hold up a mirror of reflection and ask decision-makers to honestly assess the feelings that they have that underlie the decisions they make.

However it happens, assessing the impact of our emotions and experiences on our decisions would be a significant step forward in the challenge to rebuild confidence in our economic future. Share the concept of the Veto power and STAR with decision-makers everywhere you can. And don’t be afraid to go swimming at Bondi Beach!

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