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Decision-Making Under Stress: How to Get Things "Right" More Often

When we are faced with situations of stress, the trick to better decision-making is not to be “right” more often (the world is complex, and the least we can do is accept that most things are not in our control) – but to be wrong less. To achieve that, it helps to understand what sort of mental shortcuts our brain takes to conserve its energy, and to protect us by making judgements based on what is already familiar to it. Below are the 3 top unhelpful mental shortcuts (a.k.a. cognitive biases), with tips on how to recognise them, how to shift our mindset accordingly, and the examples of how this plays out in the professional environment and during interviews. One: Consistency Bias It is human to seek consistency. If we have promised ourselves something (yesterday or years ago) about the way we’re going to act or react in a particular situation, we feel obliged to follow that “commitment” even when it is not in our interest. The positive side – theoretically, it makes everyone more predictable, facilitating social interactions; the negative side – we can rely on our mental models of the past to make decisions in the present, despite the context being different. Example when it’s working against you: “I was told that talking excessively about my accomplishments is bragging, and that’s a bad thing – so I decided that I am not a person who does that”. In the interview context, or when asking for a promotion, you don’t feel comfortable talking about your professional accomplishments, because you feel that would constitute “bragging”.  Mind shift: This is a different situation – there are times where being humble is good, and there are situations when it is in your – and everyone’s – interest to do the opposite. Adapting to a situation when it is required does not equal giving up on your values. Two: Tendency to Overgeneralise Based On a Small Sample Human brain has developed to seek patterns. If we get bit by a dog once, we are likely to be more cautious with, or even develop the fear of, dogs. That’s our brain’s survival-by-learning response in action. This also leads us to overgeneralise information based on a single case or a small sample. Example when it’s working against you: you had a bad experience during one interview because for some reason the interview seemed annoyed by a question that you asked at the end of the interview, despite the question being completely normal (and indeed one of the “recommended” questions amid most of the advice you’ve read and received). This being a stressful experience, you therefore conclude that it is not okay to ask questions from your interviewer. You have taken a single case and generalised it. Can you think of the times when the tendency to overgeneralise negatively affected your decisions? Mind shift: explore what could be other reasons for such a reaction – maybe it was about you, but most likely it wasn’t. Most of the time, it makes sense to go with the conventional advice, as long as you have a reason to believe that that advice has been tried and tested. A single occurrence could just be an outlier; now if you see it repeating over and over again, that’s when you might be onto something. Three: Confirmation Bias This one can often go hand-in-hand with the tendency to overgeneralise. We seek confirmations of our existing beliefs, and fail to see or even outright reject new information. While this is meant to help us make decisions quicker (already knowing how to react), this is also what causes us to be less adaptable to the environment and situations. Example when it’s working against you: Let's say your friend had a negative experience of an interview with a start-up company. Because of the human tendency to overgeneralise, your friend tells you that this has only happened when they interviewed with a small company. Next time, when you're coming for an interview in a small company, you may be more vigilant and are more likely to expect people "not to be nice" – simply because of one story that you have heard, and now your mind is more likely to interpret everything as a confirmation of that belief. This, in turn, can make you feel more stressed and overthink the situations more than is required, potentially affecting your performance. Mind shift: remember that when you are in a situation of stress and heightened awareness, your mind is more likely to interpret behaviours in a negative way (and then seek ways to rationalise them). Saying "just be positive" wouldn't be very helpful. Here's what is: when you find that you are interpreting the situation in a negative light, imagine what could be happening for another person who you feel is being negative towards you. This will help you to approach the situation with more empathy, as opposed to a tense defensiveness that is unlikely to help you connect. Important to note, it may be difficult to see those behaviours in ourselves, because most individuals have a tendency to believe that they are more rational and benevolent than the general population (this is called "Fundamental Attribution Error" – another cognitive bias, more on that another time). Think of the times when you have seen others make their decisions based on those unhelpful mental shortcuts. This will help you be more vigilant next time you're in a situation when making quick judgements can prevent you from performing at your best and staying focused and present in the moment.


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