A Scientific Perspective For Making Better Decisions
Intrinsic stability or instability can be a key tool in making the right choice.
Posted May 19, 2017
If you live in the world of science, the terms 'dynamic instability' and 'dynamic stability' are commonplace and essential to fundamental and life-saving principles. Aircraft dynamics, meteorologic predictions, microtubules in biology and fluid dynamics all rely on this phenomenon to understand outcomes and behavior.
And while this sounds a bit esoteric, the value of understanding this concept in the context of decision-making might be a powerful tool in understanding the implications of an act or decision. But let's start from the beginning. There are two simple terms to start with:
Dynamic Stability: A point on a path where disruption results in small deflections in position that tend to return to the original location.
Dynamic Instability: A point on a path where small disruptions cause significant shifts in position often to a new point of equilibrium.
Think about this like a roller coaster. If you're stopped at the bottom of the curve, it's fine. Any slight push—forward or back—will shift your position slightly and result in more of a rocking motion without a great change in position. And there also won't be any screaming! That's dynamic stability.
Now consider being on top of the curve at the very peak of the ride. You're right on top and perfectly still. Unlike the prior bottom position, any small force will dramatically shift your position and send you rapidly down to a completely new position. And with that dramatic shift, a few screams shouldn't be unexpected. That's dynamic instability.
The same concept can be true for a wide variety of decisions—from personal to business. And if you think about it for a minute, this idea has resonated across history from 'the straw that broke the camel's back' to 'the tipping point.' Both of these examples reflect an aspect of dynamic instability and define a negative outcome. But the opposite can certainly be true—of both instability and stability. Systems that vacillate around a point can be safe and secure yet also typify a static or mundane environment such as a stale business model or even a political system stuck in the status quo. Conversely, the steep downward path can be a sudden and powerful shift to a new perspective that can drive action or sales.
In the codification of decision-making, many factors are in play, from logistical to practical. And the analysis of 'just what to do' can be tough and made even more difficult under the pressure of time. Ultimately, decisions revolve around both the initial impact and the longer-term consequences. And this is where this concept can play a helpful role. Often times, the 'roller coaster scream test'—conscious or subconscious—can help make you a decision, or at least, point us in a direction of choice. The reality is that you're really considering the equilibrium of the choice in the context of dynamic stability or instability.
In today's world, we often find that scenarios and events are defined by this model. We try to push ourselves out of dynamic stability with an effort that is far too small to accomplish real change. Diet and exercise are typical examples where occasional, half-hearted efforts might make us feel good, but the results are disappointing. The stability of the situation makes change (and weight loss) very difficult. Other instances, like addiction, can place us in highly precarious situations where small events or tasks can push us over the edge and result in a sudden and dramatic shift.
I guess that life might really be a bit like that roller coaster. Our choices are, in part, dependent on the system or context. Understanding the simple principle of intrinsic stability can help us frame a decision so we can sit back and enjoy the ride!