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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