To take a decision,first you have to be angry
The cunning beast beneath the skin: science shows cold logic can be its own worst enemy
The theorists say decision-making is a logical process,but new research
shows emotion is just as important
Hardly anybody,hardly ever, reaches
decisions in the way the textbooks say they should. Over the past 25
years, at hundreds of meetings in a dozen boardrooms, I have seen how hard
it is to understand the process of deciding,of coming to a conclusion, of
taking action. And that the most respectable theory of how we should or do
decide - generally called "rational
decision-making" - somehow misses the point.
The textbooks, those prevalent in business -schools and on MBA courses in the 1970s and 1980s, say that you should maximise. You do that by identifying. an objective - the best holiday; profit; victory in Vietnam. You then generate options by gathering facts, analysing the -alternatives and mapping how best you might achieve that objective.
The process is highly systematic, cerebral and conscious; you know what you are doing, you can explain the process to others. Emotion is something that clutters up the calm processing of information.
Of course, people who think like that are often sensible and experienced. After all, they have made a lot of decisions, and they know there are problems in doing it perfectly: there is never enough time, the facts are hard to get, sometimes you simply make mistakes. I know how I should play a backhand in tennis, but that doesn't mean my real backhand is good.
None of these difficulties is fatal to the central idea of maximising by conscious review of systematically generated alternatives, but the evidence is that this theory is at best only part of the truth. Consider this example, taken from the decision consultant Gary Klein: a nurse in an intensive care unit for neonatal babies notices that there is something badly wrong with one of her patients. She can't explain what - and that is the point - but she is sure enough to persuade the doctor to start a course of antibiotics.
[Not being able to explain why you think something is wrong doesn't imbue you with 6th senses,or intuitions,nor does it mean you are responding emotionally,it merely means that your vocabulary and understanding is ill-suited to explaining how you arrived at your decision.Ignorance of how you came to a decision,is not a means in itself to arrive at one -LB]
A day later, conventional hospital tests show that the child is suffering from a potentially fatal condition that can spread too fast for antibiotics to have time to work. Early diagnosis is vital. The nurse's intervention occurred early enough to start the course, before there was any evidence.
The treatment succeeded and the baby was saved. But nobody, not even the nurse, knows how she knew. And she does it often - it wasn't a fluke. All she can say is that it was intuition.
This is a million miles away from a systematic and conscious review of alternatives. But the process is much more successful than the textbook model would be. This is not the case of the bad backhand - nobody should take the nurse to one side and explain that she ought to go to business school to learn how to make decisions better.
Many business decisions are made like this. The chief executive and the team certainly analyse what to do. But when they decide, a key part of deciding well is to draw on tacit knowledge and experience, which cannot be made wholly conscious and cannot be mapped on a "decision tree". Their decisions are all the better for it.It seems that you don't have to be conscious of what you are doing to do it well.
The neurologist Antonio Damasio,of the University of Iowa, has written two acclaimed books,the second of which,"The Feeling of What Happens", was published in Britain last week.
He has developed a family of ideas telling us that emotion,consciousness and reason have to together to achieve competent decisions. To illustrate this, he tells the story of a patient with severe damage to a vital part of his brain.
Such people survive perfectly well - but all is not quite right. They cannot make plans, ahead, or make a coherent life for themselves. And everyone,especially their family and friends, say that they are emotionally flat, some how not all there.
This particular patient' s combination of competence and disability is bewildering.One winter's day the roads are very icy,so when the man arrives, Damasio asks him whether the drive was difficult.
The man gives him a dispassionate,systematic,faultless account of the journey and how to drive on ice. He mentions that he saw a woman in another car skid off and crash into a ditch. Curiously, though, he says this incident did not affect his self-confidence; he drove over the same icy patch without mishap.
In this scenario, to have been emotionless was an advantage - any normal person might have panicked, stood on the brakes, skidded and ended up in the ditch, too. The patient behaved like a computer programmed to use optimum driving techniques in all circumstances.
But the next day the disadvantages of his condition and of the absence of emotional response become clear. Damasio tries to fix the patient's next appointment and suggests two dates a few days apart in a month's time. The man then embarks on an interminable, beautifully argued enumeration of the pros and the cons and the maybes of the alternative days.
But the decision never comes. After half an hour, any normal person would have tossed a coin or done something - anything - to cut the process short. Not him. Finally,Damasio tells him that he should visit him on the second of the two dates."That's fine," the patient says,as though there had never been any problem.
So emotional health does matter. Your computer-like brain does not operate better without anger, love or sadness. On the contrary, it seems that the emotional part of our makeup is essential to making decisions. As with the example of the nurse, the rational model of decision-making leaves out a key part of the process.
Rationality is not all bad. Far from it.Nobody wants to cross a bridge that has not been subject to systematic,conscious,unemotional analysis of the relevant stress factors, with the clear objective of achieving safety.To be told that the engineer has a tacit feeling that it will all be fine is no reassurance.
And jealousy, pain and fear do distort judgments. You can't just listen to your emotions. Sometimes it is right to calm down and think it out logically.
But the point is this: when human beings make decisions - be they chief executives, prime ministers, nurses or firemen - they are acting as human beings, deciding as history and evolution has designed them to do.
[Yes-make mistakes-to err is human,but
in decision making we are trying to minimise mistakes. When we use emotional
and intuition we arrive at silly conclusions like "There is a god that controls
everything",or : "Our emotions are governed by planetary movements". When
logic, and rationality are used we can see that these emotionally held views
are wrong.People are not computers.The very thing that distinguishes them,is
their capacity to err or take unwarranted risks,and of course their sentience.Mr
Hardie seems to be chronically uninformed as to the state of frontier
consciousness and AI research.The computer metaphor for the mind died some
time ago.No serious thinker,thinks that minds are like computers,or that
their logic is as rigorously determined as a machine-LB]
What Damasio shows is that we are
organisms with not only a head but also a body,
blood, neurons, consciousness, rationality, emotions - all of which combine
to allow us to act, conclude and decide.
Understanding how we decide, and how we decide well, has to be about how all those components work together as a system in an organism, which is the product of evolution. Being an organism and a system means that every part matters, not just the mind, the part that looks most like a computer.
So the dominant idea - that deciding is about conscious optimising analysis - may be a mistake, not only about how we actually operate, but also about how we can and should. Computers are different.
Jeremy Hardie is a former chairman of WH Smith Group, and is now director
of the Rationality Project at the Centre for the Philosophy of the Natural
and Social Sciences at LSE
"Anyone can be angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree,at the right time,for the right purpose,and in the right way - that is not easy."-Aristotle
[New Scientist Emotions supplement 3 May 1997]