Control the Chaos
We all consider ourselves rational people that make choices in a logical and coherent manner, and in turn, we try to lead that way. In fact, we regard reason as our highest function. We even named ourselves after it: Homo sapiens translates to mean“wise man.” However, we can explain our most illogical decisions, baffling actions, and undesirable outcomes by the same interplay of emotion and cognition that shapes all human behavior.
There are as many as six million active scuba divers worldwide according to the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA). The average diver is a married, middle-aged, college graduate who owns a home and makes a healthy living. Demographically, the people we consider the most stable in our society tend to be the ones that engage in such a recreational activity. Laurence Gonzalez, in Deep Survival, highlighted a study by the Society for Human Performance in Extreme Environments about a series of accidents where scuba divers were found dead with air in their tanks and correctly functioning regulators.
“Only they had pulled the regulators out of their mouths and drowned.”
It took a while for researchers to figure out what was going on. Their ultimate conclusion was that certain people suffer an intense feeling of suffocation when their mouths are covered. This led to an overwhelming impulse to uncover the mouth and nose. The victims had followed an emotional response that was generally a good one for the organism, to get air. However, it was the wrong response under the particular, non-natural circumstance of scuba diving.
Perhaps an implicit memory of some previous experience was the catalyst, but before they went into the water, the divers could not have anticipated that the one thing that would keep them alive was the one thing the organism would not permit. Even though, logically, they all knew that breath was not possible without a regulator, at the critical moment of decision, reason was not strong enough to overcome emotion.
So, what’s wrong here? Is there a self-destruct mode in our wiring? Do we have faulty software?
Well, there’s really nothing wrong with our software, but we never got the update. We’re still walking around with the same gray matter between our ears that our ancestors were 200,000 years ago when they were scanning the prairie for lions, tigers, and bears. However, we don’t encounter lions, tigers, and bears anymore, we encounter each other.
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari points out various remnants of an earlier time that we still carry with us today. We still have the same anxieties and ambitions that we possessed as hunter-gatherers when we were not yet at the top of the food chain. The domestication of fire was an important first step, as that helped us fend off predators and cook food, allowing us to safely ingest more calories than we had previously. Today, we still find comfort in a roaring blaze in the fireplace, even though we have a perfectly capable furnace. Even our tendency for gorging on high-calories, low-nutrient sweets can be traced back to a time when we ate entire trees of ripe fruits when they were available. Even though the food is still readily available for many people, this intrinsic competition for resources drives much of our behavior.
The only reason you have anything in your physiology is for survival. When you’re in danger, you don’t have time for abstract thinking - you need brain shut down. Your thinking has to become binary. So you either have fight-flight-or play dead. Two choices. You either just drop to the ground and faint, or you’re prepared to slug it out or run. Anything more sophisticated than that is unnecessary. You’ll be lion food.
We tend to be aware of the fight or flight response because I think we imagine that in a life or death situation we’ll either fight to the death or get away safely. However, at least 75% of people caught in a catastrophe freeze or wander around in a daze. They can’t think. They can’t act correctly. It’s been called “do-nothing sickness.” It’s an understandable response. If you were out on the prairie and a sabre tooth tiger was sniffing around, the worst thing you could do is move.
Training ourselves to behave correctly in the right conditions is critical to success. Any system is an aggregate, rather than isolated, individual parts acting independently. Unfortunately, we’re no better off in the business world. In response to the pressure cooker that is the work environment, underpinned by looming deadlines, financial problems, traffic, competition, and conflicts, we tend to employ similar tactics as on the playing field. Before the big presentation, we put on our uniform and chant to ourselves “I’m a great salesperson” after consuming three cups of coffee and two donuts. We walk into the prospect’s office, wide-eyed, ready to go, and promptly forget everything we prepared to say.
When the human system is stressed, destructive and irrational decision making takes place. If we continually react to stimuli on an unconscious level, overcoming obstacles and achieving goals becomes difficult, if not impossible. What’s more, society-at-large becomes at risk if its leadership is not aware of the conditions that create such chaos.
"How to Be Resilient: 8 Steps to Success When Life Gets Hard." Time. http://time.com/3002833/how-to-be-resilient-8-steps-to-success-when-life-gets-hard/.
Why You Might Remove Your Regulator When You Shouldn’t .., http://www.undercurrent.org/UCnow/dive_magazine/2012/RemoveRegulator201206.html