Mindset and Decision-Making

The Human Brain Is Sort Of Obsolete

Whether you believe humans were created or humans evolved, one thing is for sure: things have changed a lot in the last few thousand years. We’ve gone from small tribes of hunter-gatherers to small farming communities. Then, the small farming communities grew into cities. Then, the cities became city-states, then countries, and empires. All along the way, the number of people we’re expected to peacefully and productively interact with has gone up and up and up.

But, the human brain hasn’t really changed much in the last 12,000 years. As a species, we’re wired for empathy and cooperation, like we needed in the hunter-gatherer days. We’re also wired for loyalty to the tribe, violence, and warfare, which we also needed in the hunter-gatherer days. So, it’s easy for our brains to look at the 21st century through a “10,000 BC” lens.

If you’re interested in how this problem affects society as a whole, I’d highly recommend reading What’s Our Problem by Tim Urban at Wait But Why. But, in this section, I’m going to focus more on how our instincts and decision-making process can be both really great for an individual or get us into heaps of trouble.

Our Three-Part Brain (Sort Of)

Image by lchunhori on Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA 2.5 License.

Within the field of neuroscience, the Triune Brain model doesn’t get a lot of respect anymore. It’s oversimplified and not 100% accurate, but it’s a lot simpler to explain and use. So, with that warning, I’m going to use it, but you can find a more complex take here.

The biggest problem with this three-part system is that the best parts of it shut down during extreme stress. When someone is trying to kill you, a big storm is rolling in, or an earthquake starts shaking your house up, you really don’t have the time to make careful decisions (more on this in a few).

This is why preparing for the HR/LF/NDT events mentioned in another part of the library is so important. If you plan ahead, you can use the best parts of your brain and take your time coming up with a great strategy. Or, even better, you can mitigate the hazards and keep an emergency from happening at all.

But, not all things can be planned for. Having an understanding of how the brain works in an emergency can keep you from making mistakes.

Another Model Of Looking At This: The OODA Loop

The OODA loop is a decision-making process developed by military strategist Colonel John Boyd. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It is a cyclical loop that emphasizes agility and rapid decision-making in dynamic and uncertain situations. The steps in the OODA loop are:

  1. Observe: Collect relevant information about the current situation. Analysis doesn’t happen at this phase, only gathering of raw data.
  2. Orient: This is where people make sense of what they become aware of, and it can vary a lot from person to person and group to group. This step involves understanding the context, assessing potential threats and opportunities, and considering previous experiences and mental models.
  3. Decide: Make a decision based on the orientation phase. This step involves selecting a course of action, setting objectives, and developing a plan to achieve them.
  4. Act: Implement the chosen course of action. This step involves executing the plan and adapting as needed based on ongoing observations.

It’s important to keep in mind that the OODA loop then starts over, because you need to see how your action affected the environment.

Improving Your OODA Loop

It’s useful as a tool for planning. The OODA loop is designed to promote agility and quick decision-making, allowing individuals or organizations to respond rapidly to changing circumstances. It has been widely adopted in various fields, including business, law enforcement, and sports, as a framework for effective decision-making.

In an individual, the time from observation to reaction is about 1.5 seconds (this varies from person to person). Multiple decisions take 1.5 seconds per cycle, plus time for events to unfold after one decision to lead to input for the next.

This is all happening in the Triune Brain, with better but slower decision-making happening in the neocortex, and faster but more instinctual decisions coming out of the limbic or “reptilian” brain. Whether a decision maker is stressed or fearful (more on this below) can affect whether neocortex analysis and synthesis happens or a quick “reptilian” reaction occurs.

It can take a lot longer if a person gets stuck in the orientation phase, and it can take a long time if a bunch of people are involved. Military and government organizations grapple with this issue a lot, and use things like chain of command, planning, technology, and the Incident Command System to keep the OODA loop from getting gummed up.

Going Against Other OODA Loops

The OODA loop is also a good way of thinking about how others make decisions. If you can understand how an opposing person or team is making decisions, factoring in things like culture and what information they’re aware of (and what they’re NOT aware of), you can predict what they’ll do. Or, you can even “get inside the OODA loop” and manipulate their decisions.

Today, the United States military and many other government agencies invest heavily in improving the performance of their OODA loops. Surveillance systems, the intelligence community, communications systems, and stealth aircraft are all examples of how they both improve their own loop and degrade the performance of other competing loops.

As one of the people in the above video explains, the use of the OODA loop in civilian life can be sketchy. One great example was the Donald Trump campaign’s use of Cambridge Analytica data in the 2016 election. By getting inside of voters’ OODA loops with that data and using it to manipulate what people heard from his campaign, the Trump team manipulated the OODA loop and won the election.

Hacking or Short Circuiting The OODA Loop For A Faster Response

If you want to make decisions faster, especially in stressful, deadly situations, you need to short-circuit the loop and not spend time in the analysis phase.  There are several ways to do this, and a way it can go terribly wrong.

Training is a great way to combat analysis paralysis. If you have certain inputs that you’ve decided need to produce certain outputs, then your ability to act faster is greatly improved. By orientating and deciding ahead of time and having “canned” responses ready, you can move faster.

Simulation is another way to short-circuit the OODA loop. You can’t experience real dangerous situations ahead of time, but you can perform exercises (including tabletop exercises), thought experiments, or simply visualize in your head what you’d do in certain situations. By having something in your mind’s “hard drive” for RPDM (as explained here), you can cut ahead in line and get to action.

But, there’s one big pitfall: biases. You have to be extremely careful about what you put in your mind’s hard drive. Prejudicial attitudes toward certain groups could lead you to make bad decisions when you need to make them in split seconds, for example. So, it’s a good idea to avoid mental garbage (especially in politics) that can plug up your short-circuited OODA loop.

Another important thing you can do is keep it simple. When you want to act fast, keeping the rules and the plan simple can help you get through it faster. For example, improv actors have a rule to always agree with each other, which keeps the action from stopping and keeps people from having to stop and think about what to do next.

Keeping it simple is especially important when things happen to up the stress level.

What Happens When We Lose Our Calm

When dealing with a dangerous situation, the adrenal glands dump a bunch of adrenaline into your bloodstream.

Common Responses To A Dangerous Situation

When your brain senses danger, raises your heartrate, and dumps adrenaline into your bloodstream, people typically respond in one of the following ways:

  • Fight – Physical Confrontation
  • Flight – Run Away
  • Freeze – Overwhelmed, doing nothing (beware this common reaction)
  • Posture – Attempt to frighten an attacker by looking big, loud, or scary
  • Submit – Completely comply with demands (very dangerous thing)

There are several important things to keep in mind about these natural, instinctual responses. First off, if you’re attacked by somebody and you defend yourself, they’ll do one of these things, too. Freezing and submitting are natural, but you have to plan ahead and train to avoid those responses. Depending on the situation, they can be very dangerous.

What The Adrenaline Dump Does To Your Social Skills

The biggest problem you’ll run into is that decision-making is compromised. Back in the cave man days when there wasn’t a complex social and legal environment, this probably wasn’t a big deal. But, now everyone (very unfairly) expects to be able to judge your later when they have time to sit and think carefully.

The most important snap judgments you’ll have to make are about other people, but when the following effects start happening, the chances of getting these snap judgments wrong goes way up. Normally, you can read other people’s faces and have an idea of what they’re thinking, but when adrenaline is in your system, those higher brain functions are shut off to save energy and oxygen for fighting.

In other words, when adrenaline gets into your system, you’re temporarily mentally disabled.

What Adrenaline Does To Your Senses and Thinking Skills

Ideally, if you’re in a rough situation, your mental peak happens when the heart is between 115 and 145 beats per minute. But, when your heartrate goes over 145 and the adrenaline starts moving, the following things happen:

  • Complex motor skills like writing or operating touchscreens are lost
  • Lower parts of the brain (mammalian and reptilian portions) take
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Extreme tunnel vision
  • Auditory exclusion (you can’t hear as well or at all)
  • Time dilation (everything seems to be going in slow motion)

Overcoming These Effects

One of the biggest things you can do to improve this situation is lower your normal base heart rate. Regular relaxation and meditation can help with this. Being in good physical condition and doing regular cardiovascular exercise can also help keep your heart rate from climbing as quickly in bad situations.

It’s also important to learn to calm yourself back down, or get out of the “emotional basement”. There are somatic bodily functions you can control (like moving and looking around), and autonomic functions you cannot directly control (like your heartrate or digestion). The one thing that you can control consciously or let your body manage by itself is your breathing. By controlling your breathing, you can indirectly control your autonomic functions.

The easiest way to calm yourself back down and lower your heartrate is called “box breathing”. You can do this anywhere, even in the midst of stressful events.

Another way to get around these problems is called “stress inoculation”. When you’re training to do things like radio communication, shooting, or first aid, it’s good to learn them under normal circumstances and then start practicing them under stress. Taking a run or sprint, having somebody simulate attacking you, playing loud sounds, and doing other stressful or distracting things while practicing skills can help you learn to do them under stress.

Having pre-made decisions and good education and training as described above can all help with this, too. The less thinking and the more doing you can rely on, the easier it will be to deal with the effects of stress and adrenaline. As was mentioned earlier, keeping the plan simple can help you do better when you’re stressed and not operating at your best.

The Duning-Kruger Effect

If you’re new to firearms, preparedness, and related things, one thing to be extremely careful with is the Duning-Kruger Effect. It doesn’t take a lot of experience learning any new thing to start to feel super confident, but the feeling of confidence often comes too soon.

In this video at Sandboxx on YouTube, an experienced helicopter pilot tells the story of how he almost killed himself when he had about 250 hours of flight time in the Apache helicopter. It was then that he realized that he had a lot more to learn, and he applies it to teaching or learning any new thing in life now.

While not really part of what Duning and Kruger explained, a useful way to think about confidence is the “Peak of Mount Stupid” model, explained below. Basically, you’ll feel overconfident fast, lose confidence once you figure out what you don’t know, and then get really humble. Only then does enlightenment, sustainability, and real expertise come.

Optional Self-Quiz

Mindset and Decision-Making