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What can cavemen teach us about decisions?

 In Decision-making, Insights, Realizer Blog, Science

A couple of hours after the first caveman (or woman) invented fire, another caveman came along and poked his finger into the flames.

What did his brain do? Before he had a chance to think about it, it automatically sent a message to his hand to get the hell out of there and his arm jerked back from the fire.

This automatic reaction is interesting as it sheds light on the evolution of decisions, and it reminds us that some decisions we make we don’t have any conscious choice over. In fact, most of the decisions we make every day involve no real thought whatsoever.

For example, munching on a biscuit, as I am prone to do of an evening, is not something I have much choice over. My automatic brain sees the opportunity to stock up on food – my caveman brain hasn’t got used to the idea that I no longer have to deal with sudden food shortages – and before I know it there’s none left.

Back to our cavepeople. Some years later, our caveman who invented fire is busy chasing an antelope. His strategy is one of endurance, where he and 2 or 3 cavemates chase the antelope on foot for up to a day before it tires and drops. Not an easy way to find your food, certainly harder than driving to Coles and using paywave or tap’n’go.

At some point, our cave dwelling ancestors decided to give up chasing antelope and to settle down and grow crops and herd cattle instead. I say this was a smart decision, as the domestication of plants and animals led to food surplus which allowed some people to so other things apart from food production. And that led to the development of modern society, writing, and even NRL.

Thinking about this move from nomadic lives of the hunter gatherer to the settled life of the village farmer, I find it hard to believe that the cavefolk in question had a group discussion around a fire one night, laid out the pros and cons and then voted for farming.

What must have happened was an evolutionary change operating at a tribe level where tribes in certain areas adopted new practices, became more successful, and their ideas and progeny spread as their food surpluses became more attractive than chasing an antelope for a whole day.

So when we take a broad historical perspective on some of the major progresses of humankind, from fire to the evolution of modern society, we can see that there are hidden forces operating and controlling decisions.

On the individual level, your brain is wired to make decisions way before you even know you need to make them. Genius!

And on the group level, evolutionary pressures make some huge “decisions” for us. Even more genius (whoever invented evolution).

I think you can see some of this caveman like behaviour at work too. There are often times when people have an instant reaction to things, their brainstem automatically responds before they’ve engaged their frontal lobe. This is particularly seen in resistance to change where people automatically hate the idea even before they understand it.

And you can see big “decisions” evolve at work without anyone deciding on them. We may spend ages thinking up values and strategies, but they can often be superseded by the evolving market around us, and the evolving culture within our organisations. An example is the evolving culture of risk at Enron which spiralled out of control bit by bit, not on one big decision.

What can you do about this?

My advice is this. Recognise that you, me and everyone we work with shares 90%+ of their decision making abilities with cavemen. Recognise the emotional, automatic and evolving nature of decisions. Celebrate that your team are the smartest in the business with MBAs all round. But remember, they are only human too.

Posted by Rob Pyne