Why Biology and Decision Making Don’t Mix

On a cool January evening in Florida, NASA leaders held a teleconference to discuss a space shuttle launch scheduled for the next day.

Engineer Roger Boisjoly argued that the low temperatures would likely erode the O-Rings, an essential part of the solid rocket boosters. If damaged, the O-Rings would fail, almost certainly leading to disaster.

For this reason, Boisjoly asked NASA to postpone the launch pending further investigation. NASA leaders rejected this request and decided to move forward with the launch the very next day.

On January 28, 1986, 73 seconds into its flight the space shuttle Challenger exploded killing everyone aboard.

What happened here? Why did officials in the sophisticated, high-functioning NASA, with some of the best minds in the world, stumble so badly?

Biological Betrayal

The reason is uncertainty and our underlying biology. Uncertainty makes us emotionally and physiologically uncomfortable. It’s not our fault; it’s how we’re wired.

When our environment changes unexpectedly (such as the sudden appearance of a bear during a hike), the autonomic nervous system kicks off a series of neurochemical and neurobiological systems that cause us to react without conscious thought, the fight or flight response

Naturally, the ability to make split-second decisions mattered a great deal in the wild—is that creature moving in the bush something I can eat or something that will eat me? We are the descendants of those who made the right decisions and survived.

While this aversion to ambiguity served us well in nature, it complicates our ability to accurately assess certain situations in the 21st century as folk singer Joe Kowan explains during his TED talk:

“Your nervous system is an idiot. Really, 200,000 years of human evolution, and it still can’t tell the difference between a saber tooth tiger and 20 folk singers on a Tuesday night open mic? I have never been more terrified, until now.”*

In other words, our brains have not fully evolved to adapt to our current living conditions. Because we are still wired to make split-second decisions in the face of ambiguity, our brains seek a quick and easy answer and often find this answer by referring to information that is easily accessible. When we find this information (no proof that the O-Rings are faulty so everything is fine), we experience physiological and emotional relief because we have an answer.

In other words, this drive for clarity makes the facts at our immediate disposal seem intuitive. It truly feels right because our brain has found an answer and eliminated the ambiguity that we might have experienced, however briefly.

The problem is that “Feeling right is not the same as being right. A happy brain interprets uncertainty as a threat and wants us to get back to right.”**

Bottom line? Human beings don’t like uncertainty.

The Solution—Understanding the Difference

Certainly fear is necessary to our survival as a species because it prevents us from taking unnecessary or even reckless risks. The question is how to distinguish the fears worth listening to and all the others.

Novelist Karen Thompson Walker poses precisely this question in her TED talk*** about fear in which she recounts the true story of the whale ship Essex whose crew members were adrift in the Pacific in 1819. They faced three choices: Follow a route to islands where the inhabitants were rumored to be cannibals, sail toward Hawaii where (at that time of year) the storms would be fierce, or sale 1,500 miles due south in hopes of reaching a certain band of winds that could push them toward the coast of South America. The length of this 1,500-mile journey would stretch their water and food supplies.

After much deliberation, the men finally made a decision. Terrified of cannibals, they decided to forego the closest islands and instead embarked on the longer, much more difficult route to South America. After more than two months at sea, the men ran out of food. When the last of the survivors were finally picked up by two passing ships, less than half of the men were left alive, and some of them had resorted to their own form of cannibalism.

The question, asks Thompson Walker, is why the men feared cannibalism so much more than the high likelihood of starvation. These sailors dreamed up all sorts of horrific scenarios. She continues:

“The problem was, of all the narratives their fears wrote, they responded only to the most lurid, the most vivid, the one that was easiest for their imaginations to picture, cannibals. But perhaps if they’d been able to read their fears more like a scientist, with more coolness of judgment, they would have listened instead to the less violent, more likely tale, the story of starvation.”

If we all try to read our fears, we might be less influenced by the most salacious such as serial killers and plane crashes and more attuned to the subtler and slower disaster such as the slow build-up of plaque in our arteries.

Walker Thompson’s description of the whale ship Essex tragedy points to the availability bias, a situation in which people overestimate the importance of information readily at their disposal. In other words, people tend to narrow their options, to see only what is in front of them whether real or imagined. In the case of the Essex, the sailors’ vivid imaginations placed cannibalism front and center thus driving their decision to sail a course to starvation.

Summary: Biology and Decisions

Often, decisions require imagination and analysis. Without imagination, we cannot stretch or innovate. As the NASA and Essex stories illustrate, however, sole reliance on imagination can literally be fatal. When faced with uncertainty we should, at the very least, pause to determine if further analysis might uncover additional, useful information as we make important business decisions.

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* Folk Singer Joe Kowan at TED (http://www.ted.com/playlists/226/before_public_speaking) describing the stage fright he experienced during open mic nights.

**What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite by Dan DiSalvo

***Novelist Karen Thompson Walker at TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/karen_thompson_walker_what_fear_can_teach_us


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