Decisions and Will Power

The following are concepts from psychology that are important for you to understand. They form a key foundation for understanding why people do the things they do, particularly in extremis. All of these phenomena relate specifically to decision-making, will power, and reacting under intense pressure – most are also common experiences, which is why it’s so crucial to understand what they are and how they work.

This is one of the most interesting pieces of effectiveness-enhancing information you can fit into your brain. It’s the subject of books like Your Brain at Work, was described in a fascinating article in the NY Times Magazine, and alluded to by Obama when explaining why he always wears the same color suits. The idea is that every choice you make – big, little, important, irrelevant – tires out your brain. Every time you triage your email, exert some self control, prioritize, or choose a pair of socks, your brain exerts energy and loses the ability to make further decisions. This can manifest in a preference for the status quo, or a desire for someone else to decide, or a habit of making poorly thought-out impulse decisions. You can recharge the tanks to some degree by increasing your blood sugar (having a snack, eating lunch, etc.), but there’s an inevitable decline in one’s critical faculties over the course of the day. The lesson – that you should schedule your day in order to maximize the alignment of peak decision-making ability and decision-making need – is simultaneously painfully obvious, breathtakingly profound, and surprisingly difficult to implement.

A four year-old child is left alone in a room with a marshmallow. If she can wait for 10 minutes without eating the marshmallow, the experimenter will return and give her a second marshmallow. The ability to defer gratification at 4 years of age has been linked in longitudinal studies to better life results in just about any measure you choose (SAT scores, BMI, rates of teen pregnancy, incarceration, etc.). Variations on the test also demonstrated that children in low trust environments would (quite rationally) choose not to believe in the reward scenario, and helped explain why it was more difficult for these children to develop the will power to hold out for better long-term rewards.

What does this mean for you, besides being important parenting advice? First, you should understand that high trust environments are far more efficient than low trust environments. People will make rational decisions about whether to expect future rewards based on your actions, and giving them reasons to trust you will make it more likely they’ll play for the long-term reward instead of viewing the relationship transactionally. Second, if this is one of the most powerful ways to affect life performance, then it makes sense to look into ways to develop this skill.

This term is most frequently used in drug or alcohol addiction treatment. The idea is that abstinence can take on a life and value of its own – once you’ve abstained from something for a while, there’s pride and power in the continuing habit of abstaining. Once broken, though, a threshold is passed, and a significant part of one’s protection against a behavior is taken away. I mean, as long as I’ve already screwed up and had a drink, I might as well have another. I know I promised myself I wouldn’t have any of the junk food from the “snack wall”, but I already broke my promise to myself, and another bag of potato chips isn’t going to change that fact.

Cognitive dissonance is the emotional discomfort that occurs when your beliefs and actions are in opposition. But the interesting part is what happens next. Let’s say you don’t think a project is a good idea, but you’re put in a situation where you have to present it to management on behalf of a colleague. Or perhaps you prefer individual offices for your engineers, but have to argue in favor of an open-plan office. The tension created by arguing for something you don’t believe in will, whether a little or a lot, cause you to shift your beliefs. You’ll start identifying with the other viewpoint, and will look for ways in which you can become internally consistent, to match your external presentation.

This need for consistency is an important subject unto itself (c.f. Influence). When trying to accomplish something difficult (e.g., stick to a diet or workout routine), telling people what we’re attempting can help us to achieve our goal because we want to remain consistent with our public statement. Arguing both sides can also be an effective tactic to try to break through the artificial emotional ties we have to different approaches.

What happens when there’s no escape? When your project goes into deathmarch mode, and you’re looking at months (potentially stretching into years) of unending 100 hour weeks to release a project? When you don’t have a choice? When all you can do is accept the pain, the loss of personal time, the damage to important relationships? When there’s nothing you can do about it?

Learned helplessness was a phenomenon discovered when some particularly sadistic researchers applied electric shocks to test animals, no matter what the animals did. At first, the animals tried to escape, but after a while some just sat there, accepting the shocks. Even when opportunities to escape were presented, the animals had already accepted their own helplessness, and no longer tried to alter their situation.

I did 100+ hour weeks for about five months in the run up to the release of Heavy Gear, a forgettable giant fighting robot game. Some of my friends worked through four very difficult years on Red Dead Revolver (I escaped, thankfully, after the first year). We weren’t working in a North Korean prison camp – we had plenty of options for escape. Even if you’re on a contract, even if you believe yourself bound to finish what you completed, there’s always a way out of an abusive work situation. The biggest obstacle to overcome is in your own mind.

This is one of the foundational experiments in psychology, and (along with the Stanford Prison Experiment) one of the most haunting. In the guise of a “teaching experiment,” the experimenters were able to get subject after subject to apply increasingly powerful electrical shocks to another test subject, over and over again, even past the point that the victim had a heart attack. In fact, the electrical shocks were fake, and the victim was an actor – but the true subjects of the experiment – white collar, blue collar, male, female – didn’t know that. All subjects obeyed the authority figure; 65% proceeded to the most powerful voltage, past the point where the actor banged on the wall, shouted for the experiment to end, and went silent.

In our jobs and lives, it’s easy to go along to get along. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, but there will come a time when you’ll be told to do something you know is wrong. You’ll feel shame, anger at being put into such a position, and fear that it could cost you your job, your savings, a friendship, or worse, to disobey. But the astonishing thing about the Milgram experiment was that nothing was at risk, and yet the subjects still obeyed. When you’re pushed, and you face the question of easy acquiescence versus difficult refusal, think about what’s at stake. Is this worth your integrity? Your reputation? Your self-respect?

We all have our breaking points, but I hope that knowing about this can innoculate us – even if only a little – against blind obedience. One day, it might be the straw that tips the scales, and saves our souls.

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