Avoiding Fear Based Decision Making

I have been doing some preliminary research regarding the impact of fear on strategic decision-making. The driver of my curiosity is the commercialization of the Utica and Marcellus shale gas, a live case study happening in my buckeye state as well as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and New York. It is fascinating to see how each state is handling the opportunity and to read the rhetoric being published that affect the ability of the economic development professionals to create strategic plans to manage the impact (+/-) potential on their communities.

My hypothesis is that the most effective strategies to manage the shale gas opportunity will come from fact based planning and not fear based planning.

Barry Glassner authored a book titled “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things”. Barry cites opportunistic politicians, single-minded advocacy groups and portions of the media as contributing to a culture that is paralyzed by fears that are blown out of proportion. He believe the use of emotionally charged anecdotes instead of scientific evidence, the declaration of isolated incidents as a trend, categorizing entire populations of people as dangerous, and the prevalence of self-declared “experts” are some of the root causes of the current culture of fear.

I also found an interesting article authored by Gregory Berns, M.D., and Ph.D. on what the field of neuroscience can teach us about fear and decision-making. Dr. Berns states, “…when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.” He counsels avoiding overly pessimistic people and tuning out media that fan emotional flames. He advocates being prepared, but not hypervigilant. You are likely not going to believe me, but I actually discovered a medical term for the fear of making a decision – decidophobia, seriously.

I came across another very deep and scholarly paper on expectations, values and groups by Russell Madden. It discussed a range of expectancy-value theories. The article made me appreciate the psychologist’s viewpoints on decision-making. The net conclusion was that emotions drive individual and in aggregate group behavior, and objectivity led to better overall decision-making. Net, fear without an objective basis tends to lead to less than the best decision.

As economic development professionals, to the best of our ability, we need to help our community leadership make fact based and not fear based decisions. For those of us in the middle of dealing with the opportunities presented by shale gas commercialization, the need to promote an understanding of the facts has never been greater. We need to first educate ourselves on what is known about the economic, social and environmental impacts of shale gas extraction. And then, help our leaders and communities understand what we have learned.

To start our learning, here is an opinion article from the Wall Street Journal (June 25-26, 2011 issue) that I think does a nice job outlining what is actually known about fracking. This is one subject that is so emotionally charged that I believe the risk of fear-based decision-making rather than fact based is very real.

For those of us economic development professionals in the trenches, we need to go out of our way to really understand what is known from what is supposed. We need to take the time to listen to the real, not self-proclaimed experts and get an objective handle on the risk:benefit for our communities. As I have written in earlier posts, shale gas is not renewable and we need to ensure adequate strategic plans are in place to avoid the economically devastating risk of a boom-to-bust cycle. The only way to do so is to encourage fact-based decision-making from our community leaders.

Earning and maintaining the trust of our communities is the best way forward. Focusing on ensuring a firm grasp of the facts is mission critical to success. This recent Money Magazine article describes the challenges when leaders break trust with their communities, emotions take over and fear-based decision making is the public norm.

Focus on researching, understanding and educating people on the facts as the foundation for your community’s strategic planning. You need to help make it easy for community leaders to be fact-based in their decision-making.

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Category Leadership, Shale Gas

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9 Comments so far

  1. Chandrashekhar thatte

    June 30, 2011

    @Ed-It is for the individual to ensure or decide the basis of decision making.This is driven by ones charactor,up bringing & exposure.Most of the decision makers tend to take fear based decisions thinking that these are easy to convince/defend if questioned.In my opinion,to the extent feasible or affordable do not take decision with out knowing the facts inside out.The consequences of fear based decision making could be unfathomable at times.

    2 hours ago

  2. This is a great article and it hits the “nail on the head” when it comes to many of the decisions made by government, businesses and in our personal lives. But to take the subject one step further, what drives fear? From my perspective it is making decisions based on “opinions” rather than “facts”. Without exception, everyone has an opinion concerning just about any subject. When those opinions are supported by facts, there is no issue. Unfortunately, the problem lies in the vast amount of disinformation floating around in our society used to form opinions without taking the time to understand, analyze and process the facts!

  3. Tom Buncle

    June 30, 2011

    The short answer to your question, “How Do You Ensure Important Decisions Are Made Based on Facts?”, is …………. “education”!

    However, since that has so clearly often failed, here are some further solutions:

    – Risk management: Intelligent and well-informed risk analysis should be used as a continuous management tool, rather than as a knee-jerk or crisis management response. This minimises the shock of the unexpected, as it can be assessed within a regular business framework, rather than as an exceptional event.

    – Expose prejudice: Counter irrational arguments and decision-making with facts/evidence (easier said than done when bosses and politicians use selective facts to justify their prejudices!).

    – Culture of truth: Encourage a culture of evidence-based decision-making, a respect for intellectual curiosity, fact-finding and a search for truth.

    – Alliance of “Honest Johns”: Seek common cause with like-minded truth-seekers and conviction champions, who might have a stronger voice together than separately.

    Failing that, I can only suggest gene replacement therapy, permanent gardening leave, or extraordinary rendition!

  4. Barry Gula

    June 30, 2011

    The fear of the unknown and not being in control…its what makes many afraid of doing anything they are not familiar or totally comfortable with. Think flying. As hard as the facts are about its safety so many are afraid of flying (me included!). I think the best way to move people from decisions based on fear towards based on facts is knowledge. There will always be some that will not trust the facts but then buy-in is never 100%.

  5. Paige Thomas

    June 30, 2011

    Interesting article. I agree that decision making based on fear and misinformation is dangerous. But, whom does one believe? There are so many “experts” and one side seems to always counter the other with another group of “experts” Result? Irrational decision making based on emotions. Any thoughts?

  6. David Geraghty

    July 7, 2011

    Facts are useful elements within the context of origination. However the motive creates a frame of reference to negotiate a desired outcome. It is critical to understand how the facts will be arranged to construct an argument and logical progression to reach a reasonable agreement.

    There is always a caveat… An emotionally charged motive may exaggerate the facts in order to defend a position.

    Much of our difficulty in problem-solving comes from being vague about our purpose. If our objective is too loosely defined, we will not be able to uncover concrete ways of achieving our purpose.

    One reason we go wrong in our factual assumptions is that we make them too quickly. Just as soon as a situation registers on our physical senses, we assume we have grasped the objective facts.

    “In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch.” Albert Einstein

  7. Douw Steyn

    July 12, 2011

    If your decision-making depends only on facts, which are history, how can you make decisions now? Action research (AR), an OD (organisational development) group process that allows you to collect data in real time can be helpful in this regard. A simple model for AR process is: diagnosing – action planning- action taking – evaluating – learning. Advantage of AR is that e.g. the whole sales department can participate as needed to find a tactical solution for a marketing problem in real time. Read “Organization Development” French and Bell (1999)…

    Regards,

  8. Gilberte Quintana

    July 25, 2011

    I simply want to tell you that I am very new to weblog and actually enjoyed your web site. More than likely I’m likely to bookmark your site . You definitely come with perfect well written articles. Thanks a lot for revealing your website page.

  9. Ed Burghard

    October 26, 2011

    New data from Penn State on a study of drinking water around shale gas wells – http://dailyitem.com/0100_news/x1415460160/Penn-State-study-evaluates-well-water-quality-near-Marcellus-drilling

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