#cipdldshow – Decision Making Under Pressure

Session 1 of Day 2 at the L&D Show and I’m in a session about Decision Making Under Pressure with Prof Vincent Walsh (@vinwalsh) of UCL.  Nice that he’s also given his email for contact vin.walsh@gmail.com.

Health warning – As you read further there are men vs women statements.  These are shown in research to be the broadly consistent behaviours observed across the genders.  And they aren’t exclusively true.  Please don’t believe these are “rules” which apply to all the men or women all the time, they do however apply to most people most of the time.

In his work he’s been in a team to design a brain stimulation machine that helps depression, and he does work on sleep – a critical part for health.

I like that his aim is to have us leave here feeling inadequate – nice disorientating learning coming up then I hope!  Embrace discomfort to learn.

Vin’s saying we don’t need to learn to think better but we need to decide better.

Sometimes to solve problems we need to find the right framing – put it in a less formal, more familiar term e.g. equate a business decision to an everyday situation.  Thatcher used to put economic decisions in the frame of normal household economics to make them easier to understand.

Ways that we think irrationally:

  • We’re wired to see in certain ways.  Our brains assumptions based on perception; it fills in gaps and makes leaps to make things seem familiar.
  • We’re also irrational because we’re impressed by big infrequent things (the bright & shiny bandwagon?) e.g. lottery wins, 9/11, terrorism (all terrorist attacks since 9/11 total less than the number of people killed by handguns in America).  If something is there in front of us we attribute importance to it.
  • We attribute self-servingly – if someone we hire is good we say it was our hiring technique but if they don’t succeed then it’s their abilities at fault.

First step – accept that we are prey to 30 different ways of behaving irrationally.

Vin shares ways we can solve our decision making challenges:

What kinds of decision-making are there?

  1. Gunslinging – a lot of decisions feel like this – made quickly but sometimes you take down innocent by-standers in the process.  Fast doesn’t always mean best.  Different people will make these kinds of decisions under different types of pressure.
  2. Playing Chicken – this is when you know what you’re going to do, the question is when are you going to do it.  No correlation with gunslinging decision-making. This type of decision-making preference gives good prediction of how well you do with drugs rehab programmes, diet programmes.
  3. Poker Playing – this is the kind of decision making where you might write lists of pros & cons – makes us think we’ve got the reasons.  Too often decisions aren’t actually about evaluating the what, they’re about the when.

What kinds of pressure are there?

  1. Physical
  2. Mental
  3. Time
  4. Emotional
  5. And stress which over-lays all of this, when pressure becomes over-riding, long term

Now a video testing elite athletes against non-elite.  It showed where Vin & colleagues test people and they get these profiles form people showing the type of decisions they make under different types of pressure.

The learning is to know where you are, where your colleagues are and how your competitors respond under different types of pressure.

And know what kind of pressures impact you in different ways.

He’s now talking about when making decisions and how our body makes decisions way beyond our minds do.  (My thought to add – this is where gestalt and being present & mindful of your body means you’re more in touch with the messages your body’s giving you).  Instincts are actually valuable.  Trust them.  And this is different to confidence because that’s where you believe you know – cognitively.

Research shows that – on the whole – men are risk takers and women are more conservative with their decision making – and there’s overlap.  There are times when one approach is better than the other.

Different decision-making approaches in a group are very useful.

With 2 lists of lots of music groups on the screen, one list is of groups of 4, the other list is groups of 5 or more.  These second set of music groups are either led by a single person or they’ve gone.  The list of music groups of 4 people are stable.  We only have so much capacity for engaging with quality interactions.  (This fits with research that says teams of more than 5 lost effectiveness through their ways of working).

Navy Seals are selected for max IQ 115-120 because they want people with enough intelligence to do their job well, and enough to form a secure & stable communicating group.

[An aside: When we shake hands with people, within 90 seconds we’ll smell our hands to test our compatibility.]

When you’re doing breakout sessions with groups in learning sessions, keep groups in 4 and below.  5’s quickly break up into 2’s and 3’s.

So if you need a decision-making group, how many people will you have in that group?

And if as a woman you’re going for a job, work with a buddy because they’ll believe in your ability to go for jobs that you wouldn’t do on your own.  Men will just apply, and apply, and apply – and learn lots from all the feedback they get.

Gigerenzer – Decision making heirisitcs – he makes an important distinction between risk and uncertainty.  Risk is never really calculable.  Most often we’re in uncertainty because there are so many parameters. e.g. Shovelism – if you’re in a team of 28 and you all have a shovel and Vin needs to make a decision about whether to work in a group of 28 and get lots of gold from the mine, or whether to go off and dig on my own and meet my own needs.  Same as Brexit – too many parameters so most of us voted on a feel and rules of thumb.

Example of rule of thumb – Harry Markowitz – he created an algorithm for investing and then people discovered he wasn’t even using his own algorithm – he said “well it’s a bit complicated to use every day” – he’d discovered and was using a much simpler version for the stock decisions he was making, and still being successful.

10 Things to Know :

  1. There’s no such thing as a good decision maker – some people are better for certain decisions in certain situations
  2. There’s no single thing that it makes sense to call pressure – we all respond differently to different pressures in different ways
  3. You need to know the types of decisions and the types of pressure – is it a probabilistic decision, ,do we know the parameters, is it about when rather than what
  4. Men and women do differ – this is useful – not a competition!
  5. Your instincts are valuable although it doesn’t mean they’re always right but definitely worth including in decision making
  6. People are not as mart as you think – but then neither are you
  7. Being smart isn’t always smart – sometimes we just need to keep things simple.  There’s a test you can give with a ball bouncing on a computer screen.  It bounces up 75% of the time and down 25% of the time.  Predict what’s going to happen next.  We’d make our guesses in line with those %’s.  We’d get 75% of 75% and 25% of 25%.  If you give the test to a monkey they go up 100% which means they get 75% of the 75%!
  8. Posing a problem in the right way is the first step in good decision making
  9. Be aware of your decision making diet – how do you decide in different situations
  10. Groups – there’s a reason the Navy Seals hang around in 4’s (and aren’t a boy band!) – Vin will sometimes put 5 or 6 women together, and 5 or 6 men together in learning sessions.  Within a few minutes then men will have allocated a leader, the women never will.  Not right or wrong – it’s just different and both are valuable.  As children, girls tend to have a best friend whereas boys don’t so they learn about the push and pull of group dynamics.  Women haven’t learnt that skill of electing a leader as a child therefore use it less as an adult.


I started this looking forward to feeling disorientated and inadequate.  I think he’s achieved his goal because he’s thrown lots at us very quickly and in a very academic way.  At this stage I have questions in my head about how this new information is useful, what could I do with this.  Happy with that.  Reflecting to do.


This post has been live blogged from a session at CIPD Learning & Development Show. I’ve shared as I’ve heard it so there may be typos and I won’t have captured the whole thing but the intention is to give you a good sense of what was shared.

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