Make better decisions in difficult situations

How We Can Make Better Decisions

David Amerland by David Amerland

You’re facing a choice between several options. What you choose is your decision and you know it will have consequences. To make matters a little more interesting let’s add a time constraint, where the decision has to be made within a particular frame of time. And because this is not yet ‘interesting’ enough let’s also add a certain degree of dynamism to all this, so that the longer you take to make a choice the more choices you are faced with or some parameters of the choices you are contemplating change; forcing you to start your deliberations all over again.

This is just the kind of decision making scenario Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully for short) faced when he had just 208 seconds to make a decision that could have either saved or doomed the lives of the passengers of US Airways Flight 1549. Or, the conditions Craig Harrison had to face as he made a shot with constantly changing parameters, against time and outside the range of his gun which he’d then have to repeat. Or, what Sergeant John Ethan Place would have to do in order to ensure the safety of the men in his Overwatch.

The format of our decision making is remarkably similar. It goes a little like this: stimulus > context > choices > constraints > decision. Its operation is always determined by the same two factors: the amount of data available and the processing capacity of the human brain.

Get A Better Brain

The human brain processes task-orientated information at, (we assume and I shall return to this later), 60 bits per second. Using Claude Shannon’s Theory of Information paper we see that in the interaction between the brain and the environment, the amount of stimulus received presents its own problems.

More specifically, the more choices we have to choose from the slower we become at making a decision. Fermin Moscoso del Prado Martín from the Université de Provence in France attributes this to an increase in entropy in the brain which reflects the available scenarios that need to be worked through in order to make a decision that will lead to a specific action. This is known as Hick’s Law.

In a benign environment, like an ice-cream parlor, the number of choices are not that problematic because there is no appreciable bad outcome to be had from taking a little longer to make a decision. Apply it however on the battlefield, the boardroom, the Stock Exchange or the cockpit and you can see the issue.

Every problem we face has a solution; otherwise we wouldn’t be around for long as a species. This one is no exception. Ideally we need a larger brain but the mechanical restrictions of birth for humans has reached a ceiling on how physically big our brains are. So, we have to learn to use them better. One measure of the brain’s efficiency and potential to solve seemingly unsolvable problems is the speed at which information travels across the brain. This is called TEPS or “traversed edges per second”. When it comes to specific tasks that even the most powerful super-computers cannot handle, the human brain can be trained to deal with them.

Snipers, for instance, face unique situations, exceptional constraints and a pressure of time that is unparalleled and they still manage to get through it. Preparing to deal with unexpected events requires a mindset rather than a skillset.

The Implications

When it comes to marketing, selling, creating brand awareness and capturing market share the implications are obvious. More choice does not necessarily mean to more sales, particularly when the choices available in products and sales have been created in order to just generate more choice. Function cannot be separated from form. Display and design have to closely adhere to the real needs of real people. Marketing has to fulfill the needs and reflect the development arc of its target audience. This means that there has to be a sense of shared values and shared journey between a brand and its audience. The need for empathy has never been more acutely felt.    

Navigate The Choices

On the business owner, startup founder, content creator side things are just as difficult. The solution to the complex situation that is presented when we're faced with multiple choices and unprecedented circumstances lies in what we’ve taught our brain to deal with. In order to be able to safely navigate choices and complexity and still make a decision we won’t regret requires a specific approach that teaches:

  • Emotional regulation
  • Situation appraisal
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-control

To be sure there are techniques that help directly with each one. They improve concentration, increase self-control and help the brain make better decisions, faster in difficult situations.

It is in what they do for the mind however that their true benefits are felt. Better decision making, at the preparatory stage, is a holistic activity. At the crunch point however it is your brain that will kick into gear. At that point it’d better be prepared.