Don’t make a decision while under the influence…of adrenaline!

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One Sunday afternoon, I was driving along the PIE in Singapore – a four- and sometimes five-lane expressway – heading for home. I had just gotten onto the expressway and seeing a pathway to move towards the extreme right lane, I signaled my intention and proceeded to filter. As I was easing into the extreme right lane (that’s the fast lane in Singapore), I noticed a car bearing down towards me with his headlights blazing and his horn blaring. He was obviously in no mood to yield. He actually tried to accelerate to cut me off. But he was just too far away as I eased into position. Obviously he had to decelerate quickly and started to tailgate me. He continued to blare his horn at me while moving behind. I maintained my speed at the limit, resulting in a gap in front of me (they all drove faster than the limit!). I knew when the traffic eased, he would accelerate past me and then try to force his way in front of me. And that was exactly what he did! Having anticipated that, I swerved to the second lane and, true to expectations, he did likewise to cut me off to maintain the upper hand. This prompted me to filter all the way to the extreme left (slowest lane) with a slower van just to my right on the second lane. The aggressor then promptly accelerated and slotted in front of the van, expecting me to try to move up the extreme left lane, and when I have just passed the van, he will immediately slot in front of me, causing me to jam my brakes. But that didn’t happen. I eased behind the van and when a car passed me to my right, I took the space behind that car, and then slingshot to the right lane, thereby causing the aggressor to be stuck on the left. I didn’t see hide nor hair of him again.

Adrenaline and decision-making

Now if you think this post is about driving incidents in Singapore – and there are many – you're wrong. Actually I want to talk about making decisions while under the influence of … adrenaline. When the incident passed, I could still feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins and my body was literally quivering. I needed to get it out of my system (I ended up sleeping it off!) What I found out was, when I was in this heightened mental state, I could not carry a rational thought. And even if I had “won” this “duel”, my body wanted to pummel the guy and it obviously didn’t have enough.

As it turns out, my experience is not unique. This happens every time the brain senses danger and it promptly informs the adrenal gland to secrete adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone. When this happens, the amygdala in the brain takes over from the neocortex, short-circuiting brain activity away from rational thinking. What I experienced in the process of “outwitting” the aggressor was that it was extremely hard to remain calm and rational when the body was awash with adrenaline and I could easily have done more dangerous actions to raise the aggression from both parties. That might have led to rather catastrophic results.

So what has this got to do with a post on strategic thinking and decision-making? In one word, everything! The minute you are put into a situation where your body starts being awash with adrenaline, and this might be in a negotiation situation where your counterpart is making ridiculous claims, making you angry; when playing Texas Hold ‘Em and you’re holding onto a double Ace and an Ace turned out up the river; when at a witness stand and the opposing lawyer is putting to you that you were the culprit, not his client; when seated in a time share presentation where unscrupulous sales people are shouting at you to buy a seat before they let you out. These are all situations when adrenaline is awash in your system and you end up making a bad decision, one where you will invariably regret.

So what do you need to do?

1. Remain calm. Adrenaline attempts to raise your heart rate so as to pump more of the hormone throughout your body. You can resist that by keeping calm.

2. Focus on the right thing. In my case, I didn’t want to show the person up. That was why I didn’t look at the other driver throughout the event. I just wanted to regain the upper hand that I knew I was going to achieve; but through my wits, not mechanical force.

3. Don’t react. Aggressive people want you to react aggressively as well. This will validate his need for aggression. By not reacting, by remaining calm and focusing on the right thing, you don’t add to an already tense situation.

4. Stay away from such situations. Of course, prevention is better than cure, and discretion is the better part of valour. If at all possible, stay away from such situations. But if you do find yourself caught in such situations, remember the preceding three points.

Conclusion

When your system is awash with adrenaline, your executive functions are diminished and you will make poor decisions. In fact, your intent should simply be to get out of the situation as fast as possible. If in that tense negotiation, ask for a time-out; if on the poker table, remain calm; if on the witness stand, just stick to the facts. Whatever you do, don’t make an important decision. Chances are, it won’t be a good one!

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