“There is no such thing as being good under pressure”

Brain research professor Vincent Walsh on how we can get smarter at making better decisions

Everyone has a decision they regret making or wish they had spent a little more time thinking about – from life landmarks such as splitting up with a partner or passing on a job offer, to the more fleeting regrets like having that extra slice of cake instead of hitting the gym. People Management is hoping Vincent Walsh, professor of human brain research at University College London, can shed some light on the theory behind smarter decision-making. After all, he’s spent the past five years figuring out how to translate what we know about the brain’s function into improvements in our everyday learning and decision-making. But, he warns: “There are no shortcuts; there is no magic to knowing about the brain. Our knowledge of the brain can help us improve our learning and decision-making.”

Does everyone make decisions in the same way?

I’ve found there are three categories of decision-maker: gunslingers – fast decision-makers; chickens – people who push their decision-making to the limits; and poker players – probabilistic decision-makers. A lot of the decisions you make in sport and business do not have a definite right answer, but they suit a certain type of decision-maker. Sometimes you want people to be fast decision-makers under pressure; sometimes you want people to be good at playing chicken and knowing when to move; and sometimes you need probabilistic decision-makers. We have profiled hundreds of people and nobody is good at all three. Faced with any decision, you have to take into account risk, the value of the reward and the distance to that reward. People generally are not very good at understanding the value of something in the future.

How does pressure affect our ability to make decisions?

Pressure means something different to everyone and there are many types: physical, emotional, time and mental. There is no such thing as a person who is ‘good under pressure’ – but people can perform better under certain types of pressure than others. Also, how you behave when you are not under pressure is not an accurate indicator of how you will behave under pressure. If we did a ‘no stress’ test on how you might be as a gunslinger, chicken player or poker player – as employers might do in the recruitment process – it’s no indication of what you’re going to be like after a bad night’s sleep, or under emotional stress.

You’ve worked with elite athletes. How do their decisions differ to those made by businesspeople?

Where I think elite sportspeople are ahead of businesspeople is that they take seriously the need to understand the different types of decision and the different types of pressure. In sport, it’s all about psychological decision-making. Rugby is a great example of that. Because we don’t have the same culture of analysis in business, there haven’t been the same advances in improving decision-making. Decision-making in groups also provides a different dynamic – groups are usually too big to make decisions. There is a reason the SAS and Navy Seals work in groups of four – four is a conversation; five is the beginning of a committee.

Can we do anything to improve our ability to make decisions?

Decision-making is a skill and you can definitely improve it. The more you make good decisions, the more likely you are to make good decisions in the future. And if you make good decisions, you don’t have to undo all the consequences of your earlier wrong decisions, and it saves you time and money. I look to help people make better decisions about making decisions. First, identify what your strengths and weaknesses are in those different categories of decision-making, and then learn how you respond to different types of pressure. There is no embarrassment in being a good poker player and not such a great gunslinger, or in being able to handle physical and mental pressure but not emotional pressure.

Getting enough sleep is also crucial. When you sleep, the brain replays the events of the day and makes connections with other events in your life. There are specific phases of sleep that are important for consolidating memories about things that we’ve learned and rules, for example. If I was to recommend one thing to improve health, wellbeing and decision-making, it would be improve your sleep habits. One bad night’s sleep is actually worse for your decision-making than being over the drink-drive limit.

Shouldn’t we trust our gut instincts?

People might imagine that the best thing is to be unaffected by your emotions when making decisions, but actually your emotions are a great clue as to the right thing to do. In some situations, your body is actually aware of the right decision before you mess it up by thinking about it. There is strong evidence from neuroscience that we have bodily signals – autonomic signals – that tell us what the big risk and the big loss is going to be before we are intellectually aware of it. You might call them instincts or emotions, but it is worth being aware of them and not being afraid of following them sometimes. People are also rarely in possession of all the information they need to make a complex decision, so that’s where heuristic rules of thumb are important. The more complex the decision, and the more unseen the variables, the better it is to go with a rule of thumb.

Reproduced from People Management magazine: May 2017