Business Continuity and Emergency Management teams need to make rapid and structured decisions under pressure. To handle emergencies best, they prepare in advance by developing and rehearsing detailed plans.

But the best laid plans can go astray when people freeze, become confused, or panic under pressure. So, how does our brain make decisions and how can we get the best out of it under pressure?

Business Continuity consultant Charles Boffin offers the following clues:

Different Decisions—Different Brain Regions

Our brains absorb and evaluate a host of information from our eyes, ears, and other sensory organs. When a critical threshold is reached, it can trigger a decision. Where this happens, depends upon the nature of the decision.

Abstract and concrete decisions rely on planning and reasoning, which is processed in the frontal lobe. But decisions based on visual information are made in the parietal lobe. When a decision does not produce the desired results, activity shifts to the orbitofrontal cortex, located behind our eyes, which enables us to re-evaluate and alter our behaviour or change the decision.

Here’s the point: When we are under pressure, all decision-processing regions in our brain are involved.

Rational versus Emotional

Additionally, because we are emotional beings, our brain is vulnerable to inbuilt bias.

To illustrate, it has been demonstrated that the negative emotional impact of losses is twice as intense as the positive effect of gains. This affects our decision making in predictable ways.

For example, we may continue to follow a bad course rather than make a change as we believe that the situation will either correct itself or not be as bad as expected, particularly if we have followed this particular course before.

How can we help our brain cope with this rational-emotional tussle?

  • Research suggests that the best process for making decisions under pressure is to use data and numbers to inform our intuition.
  • And because our emotions can influence our objectivity, we should pursue an approach that is inquiry-based rather than advocacy-based.

The Impact of Stress

The subjective value of our decisions can also change as the level of stress varies. For example, neuroimaging data indicates that stress may greatly reduce our neural responses to positive and negative feedback. Thus,

So, it’s not a level playing field in stressful situations when evaluating factors and reaching conclusions.

Gender Differences

In addition to the above, research shows that men and women respond differently to stress. Under stress, men take more risks but women tend to be more conservative.

What are the implications of the above biological issues for emergency decision makers at time of need?

Take Away List

  1. Whole brain. Recognise that decision-making processes can be affected by a number of factors – stress, emotions, even gender.
  2. Look forward when making the decision. Don’t just focus on the present, that is, the consequences of this particular action? We tend to focus on resolving ‘now’ issues but the world we have created relies on understanding the impact and longer-term view and outcomes of our actions.
  3. Prioritise decisions. Which ones need to be made now, not necessarily what are the easiest ones to make. Even in the most time-sensitive situations, there is almost always time to think and evaluate.
  4. Gut instinct is not irrational. It is often due to rapid assimilation of experience.
  5. Rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. But understand that exercising is to be familiar with general process and not a precise list of activities as these will be dictated by the event in play.
  6. Don’t be side-tracked. Dismiss irrelevancies.
  7. Expect the unexpected. Listen but don’t hear what you expect to hear.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. But stay in control.


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