Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Emotions Drive Risk Decisions

Once you know what it is you want to be true, instinct is a very useful device for enabling you to know that it is.” 
Douglas Adams, The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy

Despite our best intentions, education, intelligence and analytical ability, there is plenty of evidence to support the assertion that we make our risk management decisions base on emotions. Hard to believe - but true. We’re not the logical beings that we might like to think we are when it comes to risk management. Studies have shown in fact that stroke victims who have damaged the part of the brain that controls emotions are often incapable of making decisions. Even when provided with obvious rational data to make a decision, they often are unable to simply settle on one option.

And yes, we are perfectly capable of analysis and logic – we just don’t use it as often as we think we do. The neo-cortex in our mammalian brain can reason and make more nuanced trade-offs about long term risks but it's also much slower than our other systems. We actually have two systems for managing risk:

  • a primitive intuitive system in our Limbic brain (mostly centred in the amygdala) which deals with fight or flight type risks
  • a more advanced analytic system in the neocortex which is pretty good at abstract concepts 

Our limbic system in particular, is very fast, relatively autonomous and for very good survival reasons, able to hijack our thought processes for fight or flight responses. Unfortunately it doesn’t care in the slightest about abstract concepts like cancer or climate change and given it's primacy in our decision making, it's a real challenge for our neocortex to over-ride the amygdala.

Not yet convinced? Head around to the back door of a hospital one day and have a chat with the Doctors and Nurses standing outside smoking. Ask them if they understand the long term risks of smoking… Then ask them what they are doing about it. The immediate pleasurable sensation that smoking releases is appealing directly to the limbic system which is busy self-medicating for depression. Feeling bad is a very visceral and immediate risk. Lung cancer is a very real but entirely abstract risk and you can tell which system is in control - at least for the smokers among us.

Equally, the motorcycle racer has a fair idea of the risks associated with racing, but it's fun! The limbic brain is balancing up the risks and it feels good, so the potential risks of broken bones, paraplegia or death although real, are abstract concepts that our emotional brain struggles to fully evaluate.

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