Decisions, visions, brain functions and storytelling

Recently, I’ve become interested in decision making. My job is frequently about helping people make decisions which impact their businesses and their lives. It’s also about selling services, which requires some clue about how and why people make purchasing decisions. And these professional interests in decision making, and underscored by the constant stream of decisions contemplated every day, both large and small. What shirt will I wear? What car should I buy? Where should my kids go to school?

With all this bouncing around my prefrontal cortex, I’ve found much insight in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide. It’s about what happens in our brains when we’re making decisions, the roles played by rationality and instinct. It’s also about which parts of our brains are used when making these decisions. As you’d expect for a popular science book, narrative accounts play an important role in bringing the various examples of decision making to life. When you’re kicking around terms like ‘stochasticity’, ‘posterior cingulate’ and ‘dopamine receptors’, it helps if you can relate it to stories about football matches and Deal or no Deal.

There’s a couple of stories about mid-flight incidents on board passenger jets, a topic which can always be relied upon to raise the heart rate. One is about a United Airlines flight from Denver to Chicago, which was interrupted by an internal explosion which took out all the hydraulics, leaving the pilots without the ability to steer the plan. The story is about decision making under pressure, and the ability to invent a tactic for landing the plane on the run.

“…[the pilot] needed to solve his problem, to invent a completely new method of flight control. This is where the prefrontal cortex really demonstrates its unique strengths. It’s the only brain region able to take an abstract principle – in this case, the physics of engine thrust – and apply it in an unfamiliar context to come up with an entirely original solution. It’s what allowed [the Pilot] to logically analyse the situation, to imagine his engines straightening [the plane’s] steep bank.”

This last phrase, about imagining an end result and creating a process to achieve that result, caught my eye. This is, I think, what many creatives do. They imagine the end result and corral the resources (time, capital, labour etc) to bring about that vision. Some will be able to design prototypes to communicate that vision to others in the production process; a fashion designer will do so through sketches and patterns. Others will have to do so without visual tools; a screenwriter has to imagine what a film will look like and sell that vision to others, long before a frame is shot.

Entrepreneurs do this too. They have to imagine a version of their business which fulfils what they want from it: money, lifestyle or whatever it is that sparks their motivation for being in business. They have to imagine the end result and ‘see’ it long before others can. Then they invent a way to achieve it. And ‘invent’ is really the right word because although they can follow the steps others have taken in the past, each business’s journey is unique, with its own ups and downs.

The Pilot’s story is about the suppression of emotion (in this case, panic) to focus on rationality.( It’s not always like this though; the book also highlights decision making which is enhanced by instinct and emotion). But it’s also about the ability to screen out all unnecessary information in order to concentrate on the crucial data. For example, the Pilot had no time to focus on the hydraulics – they were gone and never coming back. He had to focus on the elements he could control – in this case engine speed –and block out the rest.

Again, there’s something in this for entrepreneurs. I met this week with a fellow who runs a creative industries business and he told me that his company now focuses less on small, labour intensive jobs and more on larger scale jobs for corporate clients, on which he can spread his resources more evenly. Such is the dream of many a small business owner, so I asked him how he achieved it.

He didn’t really know how; there had been no deliberate strategy, other than to adopt a vision for his company which involved work with large corporate clients. He was inspired to do so by a presentation by a Hindu priest he met at a bank’s innovation conference (I know, right?). The priest talked about balancing a peacock feather on your finger. If you look at your finger, apparently it’s really hard to balance the feather. But look at the top of the feather, and it’s much easier. (Peacocks are hard to come by at my place, so I have yet to try this for myself.)

Choose the metaphor you like – looking at the top of the feather, forgetting about the plane’s hydraulics – the point is that focus on an end goal and screening out distractions count for something. And that there’s nothing like telling a good story to illustrate abstract concepts.

PS. Talking of good stories..While adding some links to this article, I discovered that How We Decide has been withdrawn from sale by its publisher. The story’s here.

Ref: Lehreh, J. 2009, How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.

 

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