Fear-based decision making

You’ve decided to hike the West Coast Trail for reading break. A few days in you accidentally sneak up on a black bear and you freeze. You know you’re not supposed to turn and run, but now that the situation is upon you that’s the first thing that springs into your head.

Can you think critically in this high stress situation? Your sympathetic nervous system is on overload! Maybe you can, but what about everyday life decisions that are not life and death? You’re making multiple decisions a day based on fear.

You’ve decided to take a new course. Unfortunately, I’m your professor and I’ve decided to make the final worth 100% of your mark. There’s a caveat. You have to design your own test. The number of questions, the types of question, the marks assigned to each question; all of that, it’s all on you. You pick the format then I pick the questions. Quick! Design your test…

I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to think about the tests you’ve done the best on throughout your university career and then design it to emulate where you think you are the strongest. You are most likely going to spread the marks around in an attempt to ensure yourself an adequate grade. You will most likely design the test so there’s no way you will fail and hopefully you’ll score a little above your average. Yea, you can put a little gravy on those mashed potatoes you’ve been eating for the last 4 years, but what about that exquisite, gourmet, foie gras with rhubarb, leek ash, caramelized cipollini, saffron, finished in apple-rosemary butter. It sounds pretty decadent to me. I’ll be having that.

Every student who has ever taken any test has had the exact same goal. Get 100%. That’s the goal of every test that’s ever been made. Beat the test. Get 100%. So if you get to design your own test with the goal of getting one hundred percent there really is only one choice. 1 question; worth 1 mark. Was that the test you designed?

Okay, so maybe you’ve designed a test that has 40 questions and that hypothetically you scored 80%. If instead of 40 questions you had 1 question then you would have an 80% chance of getting it right, and therefore an 80% chance of getting 100%. With those odds Vegas would have to pack up shop and go home. But wait, what about that 20% chance of getting zero? Richie Risk Taker would tell you that if you’ve even thought about failing you’ve already lost, or something witty to that effect.

Sharp color  pencils on paperCould you imagine the first day of class and the professor saying, “We are going to have a final at the end of term. It will be one question worth one mark.”

I can imagine the uproar. The fear of getting zero in a course outweighs the benefit of getting 100 for all students. You design a test that you can get a decent mark on, and then go home and cuddle your horseshoe shaped pillow (the Bell curve exaggerated) and everything is right in the world. Do we live in a world that pursues mediocrity? Is our sole purpose in life to be just good enough so Donald Trump doesn’t label us a loser? Is Bill Belichick punting on 4th and 1?

A couple of factors are at play here. Taking risks, changing the game, trail blazing; always works well if the majority are deeply rooted in the status quo. If everyone chose 1 question worth 1 mark then all the marks would be either 100 or 0, but if you were the only one to choose that option and got 100 you have the top mark. You will be a genius or a total failure. With risk comes meaning. Whether you get 100 or zero you will remember that mark. It will have more impact on your life. You will undoubtedly experience more growth.

Everybody craves comfort. Sure, comfort has a different form for different people but we all want to be accepted; celebrated is even better. Maybe it’s money for you, or status, or family, or love. Maybe you need to have your special coffee every morning. Things become routine; life becomes predictable. It becomes difficult to make changes or to live and think differently.

I’m not saying go out and take a bunch of risks every day or that comfort is the grown up version of the monster in your closet, preying on your fears and controlling your behavior. You need to be self-aware of your own decisions and what they are based in. Live like someone else for a day. You might just learn something.

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2 Responses

  1. Gillian says:

    Great post, James. It is thought-provoking, insightful and well-written. I will be happy sharing this through my social media channels.