Feature Story

The Science of Decision-Making

Primitive ‘fight-or-flight’ instincts are in play even when making decisions in the boardroom.

Facing a tough decision in a tense boardroom?

Try picturing your colleagues with stone tools on the primordial savannahs of Africa.

Suits and Macbooks aside—that shouldn’t be a stretch.

“You are walking into boardrooms and business meetings with a brain that evolved to deal with the urgencies of life tens of thousands of years ago,” said Michael Platt, a professor of neuroscience, psychology, and marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

As much as we like to think our decisions are rational, some fairly irrational instincts are at play. This happens whether we are choosing dessert or deciding which company to buy.

“How you understand the context of a decision, plan for the future, and depend on the people around you, your family, and your clan,” Platt said, all relates to survival on the savannah.

Those primitive instincts don’t always lead to great decisions. That high-calorie dessert would have been a better choice in the feast-or-famine environment of our ancestors.

“The normal boardroom decision-making free-for-all plays into that fight-or-flight savannah mentality,” said Cathy Davidson, author of Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century.

“We often pit people against one another,” she added, “rather than taking the best from everybody.”

Primitive Brains Meet High Technology

The good news is that we aren’t entirely primitive.

“What really activates those fight-or-flight circuits are non-quantifiable things, ambiguities, uncertainty,” said Ming Hsu, a neuro-economist at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley.

Too much unmanageable data only adds to the problem. But with the right digital tools, Hsu said, we can approach decisions as if proving a hypothesis, and predict a potential outcome with greater precision.

Technology—including data, analytics, and augmented reality—are modern tools that help us make better decisions. As artificial intelligence continues to become more accessible, it will offer its own “thoughts” on the future impact of a decision.

Technology also illuminates just what is going on in that gray matter of ours.

“In the last 20 years, brain-scan technology has given us a concrete window into the decision-making process,” said James Stellar, a biological psychologist and provost at the State University of New York at Albany. “And there is a massive computational network involved, much of which we are unaware.”

Evolutionary biology has honed that brain network for survival. Fast decision-making, was a matter of life and death when confronting a saber-toothed tiger or unfamiliar tribe.

That’s why many of those processes operate on an unconscious level. For example, reading the non-verbal gestures of that potentially hostile tribe (or senior leadership team).

Social Apes, Doing Business

Platt stressed that some human decision-making circuits aren’t more sophisticated than those of lower animals. But our heightened understanding of social cues is one thing that distinguishes the brains of humans and other primates.

“What makes human decision-making so interesting compared to most animals, is that we are so tuned into our social environment,” Platt said. “So we consider how our decisions affect others. And we can’t help but pay attention to individuals with higher status or reproductive potential than our own. That can shape the decision process.”

Today, decision-making is often collaborative, even if one person makes the final call. So understanding non-verbal messages is as important as ever.

“Posturing and signaling dominance evolved in the early primates,” Platt added. “But in any board meeting that happens on a much deeper level than people imagine.”

This can lead to terrible decisions, Davidson stressed. “Some people will fake certainty when they feel their decision is being questioned,” she said. “But it’s often just blustering. A little bit like chimps or gorillas pounding their chests.”

She added: “It’s not always the loudest person in the room who makes the best decision.”

The right DNA helps as well.

“How you respond to stress depends partly on your personality,” Platt said. “Studies of monkeys and baboons show that some leaders are just chill. No signs of cardiovascular stress, no matter what the situation.”

Decision DNA

Is your brain DNA just so-so? You can still lower decision-induced stress.

Hsu recommends verifying every decision. This should become easier as data insights increasingly replace hunches. “Validating the underlying assumption should be a universal theme for managers,” Hsu said.

But hunches have value, too.

“We evolved to have rational computations,” Stellar said. “That’s why that frontal part of our brain is so large, to be able to run those ‘what if?’ scenarios. But on the other hand, we can’t discount intuitions that we spent a lifetime developing. We have to have them both together.”

Keeping the brain functioning at its best is also essential. Platt suggests the usual suspects: sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindful meditation. All will improve cognitive function and integrate the mental layers.

Stellar recommends quiet reflection, away from the boardroom, to balance what he calls, “the dual nature of our existence.”

“There are many pieces of the brain,” Stellar said. “The rational mind is often unaware of the unconscious processes. But it’s the marriage of these two that produces really good decisions.”

A Method to Good Decision-Making

Cathy Davidson, author of Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, offers this methodology to integrate spontaneous intuition with cognitive analysis.

She recommends that everyone in the room be given 90 seconds to jot down their first impressions of an idea or decision.

Then each person partners with one other person. Their task is to refine and combine their thoughts together. After, each pair presents to the group.

People’s brains solve problems differently, she stresses. For example, some are introverts, some extroverts. And as brain scans reveal, even left-handers and right-handers have very different functions.

The goal of Davidson’s exercise is to represent a wide-ranging and honest inventory of all creative approaches—beforefight-or-flight impulses and self-editing come into play.

“Some people absolutely have to work by themselves,” Davidson said, “some do well in dialogue, and extroverts work best in groups. With this methodology, you capture all the ideas in the room, and you can make very effective decisions.”