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Think Again

June 24, 2009

We tend to characterize disasters by their consequences. The effects of any disaster arise not just from the intensity of the hazard, but also our vulnerability to it. Nearly all vulnerabilities arise from our own or others’ decisions.

By choosing where to live, how to build, what to buy, and how much to consume we create the future. And all of these decisions and actions arise from the way we understand and relate to our environment.

An intriguing new book by Sydney Finkelstein, Jo Whitehead, and Andrew Campbell explores these dynamics. Think Again deconstructs the processes that lead good people to make bad decisions.

The authors note that we humans have two cognitive traits that influence how we make decisions for better and for worse: pattern recognition and emotional tagging.

Everywhere we look, we seek patterns. More often than not, we find them, whether present or not. How we feel about those patterns and our relationship to them provides us with important markers that associate the details with other experiences to facilitate recall under similar circumstances. Both of these characteristics pose problems for us when we encounter new information and novel situations.

We can help ourselves make better decisions by looking ahead and applying the habits and practice of strategic foresight. Anticipating new situations, even when we cannot foresee precisely how they will present, helps us engage such encounters with confidence by helping us appreciate not only what such situations might look like, but also how the uncertainty, ambiguity, or complexity will make us feel.

Making ourselves comfortable with such conditions can transform our response from one of anxiety or dread into something more akin to deja vu. Likewise, learning lessons from others’ experiences, not just their actions, will help us avoid adverse consequences by building a response founded in constructive patterns and emotions.

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