The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Dare To Dream

The fine art of risky decision making.

Barbara Sahakian was curious. It was the middle 2000s and Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge in England, got interested in high risk behavior.

Historically, scientists thought of risky behavior as a negative, associated with drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, even mania, but entrepreneurship threw a wrench in those works. Starting a new company requires a healthy tolerance for risk. It means betting resources and reputation on a significant unknown. “Entrepreneurs seem to represent a high-adaptive form of risk-taking behavior,” says Sahakian, “they can turn stressful decision-making into positive outcomes.”

To figure out what was going on, Sahakian assembled a collection of thirty-five businessmen. All were in their early fifties, all scored in similar percentiles on intelligence tests. But half of this group were entrepreneurial: having started at least two companies. The other half had not.

She gave her subjects two psychological assessments. The first measured what is called “cold decision making,” a kind of logical choosing where data is king and feelings play no part. The second measured “hot decision-making,” or decision-making in the face of risk, where emotions always play a significant factor.

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“When a manager is designing a new company branch,” says Sahakian, “that’s cold decision making. But when a VC has to pull the trigger on a multi-billion dollar investment. When it’s go or no time—that’s a hot, emotional decision.”

While both groups of test subjects scored in the exact same percentile for cold decision making, when it came to hot processes, the results couldn’t be more different. The managers were conservative. It was a betting game, and their wagers were low. But entrepreneurs showed a significant inclination for the big bet. Which, for a group of 51 year-olds, was pretty unusual.

“As we get older,” says Sahakian, “we lose our predilection for risk—this is very well established. But entrepreneurs don’t go this route. They make risky decisions like they were still 17-27 years old.” 

In today’s world, where most every businessman needs a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit to thrive (some would say to survive), this raises the question of whether we can train the brain to be less risk adverse in the face of hot decisions.

Essentially, is it possible to turn middle managers into innovators.

“It’s a big question,” says Sahakian, “but no one is yet certain.” Risk taking is most frequently associated with the neurochemical dopamine, so this does suggest pharmacological interventions might be possible. That said, the Parkinson’s drug L-Dopa (which raises dopamine levels) had the unintended consequence of turning patients into gambling addicts so dopamine alone may be the wrong stimulus.

An even bigger problem is that we don’t just want to take more risk when making hot decisions, we want to make better hot decisions as well.

This is where entrepreneurs—or, more specifically, the scientists who study entrepreneurs—might want to investigate the world of action and adventure sports.

Over the past ten years, the level of danger has risen to such an extent in sports like big wave surfing, big mountain skiing, wingsuit flying, etc., that advanced practitioners often have to make very hot—my life depends upon it—decisions with zero margin for error. As action and adventure sports have become ridiculously popular over this same period, the number of people surviving these decisions has sky-rocketed as well. This bespeaks a tantalizing possibility: that training better hot decision-making is within the realm of the possible. So while it’s not yet known if these lessons can be applied to business, the lessons of high adrenaline say that there’s space to learn.

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Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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