Decision Making Under Stress

Thompson, Dr. Dick

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we are honored to have Dr. Dick Thompson who is the President and Founder of High Performance Systems. One of the things that Cathy and I are both excited about is that our topic today is Decision Making Under Stress.

I know when I’ve researched decision making, and we’ll ask Dr. Thompson about this, we make as many as about 30,000 decisions in a day. So we are going to be diving deeper with Dr. Thompson about your decision making; what works, what doesn’t work, especially when you are under stress.

Dick is an internationally recognized consultant, educator, speaker and author. Over the past 25 years he has gained valuable experience developing and leading teams from the battlefield to the boardroom.

Dick has a 21 year military service that resulted in exceptional management insight and expertise. He was an officer with the U.S. Army Special Forces Group, the Green Beret’s, decorated for heroism and has trained and led some of the most elite teams in the world.

His work for the military on high-performing battle staff and continuous operations was instrumental in the success of the U.S. Forces in the Gulf war. He is a subject matter expert on stress and the battlefield. His research has covered the impact of stress on decision making, which we will talk about today, cognitive performance, aggressive behavior, sleep deprivation, leadership and emotionally intelligent behavior.

He is the Founder, President and CEO of High Performing Systems which is an international consulting and training firm he founded in 1984. So he has been doing this for quite a while. He’s worked with a lot of big companies including AT&T, Shell, Johnson & Johnson, and General Mills.

We are really pleased to have him share some of his expertise with us.

Dick welcome to the show.

Dr. Dick Thompson: Thank you. I’m really honored to be on the show with the two of you, with all your background, your expertise; I’m very excited about what we are going to talk about today and ready to go.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Great. We see you as a valued colleague and someone that I learn from, like I said earlier, in my book I have used your book, the Stress Effect, and we’ll talk a little bit more about that as one of the resources. So, tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today and maybe some of your key influences, and then we’ll get into the decision making under stress.

Dr. Dick Thompson: I started out a long time ago with my parents who thought I was somewhat strange in that I wanted to work outside in the laboratory that I had built in the garage to the wee hours of the morning and they just couldn’t understand what I was doing out there but they supported me. I was into research and science and always carting things from high school back to my house for the lab to use it and then that continued on and eventually I ended up in the military and I had been studying chemistry in college because I thought molecules were really important.

Once I got into the Army and found myself on the battlefield and leading men in combat, I realized I might have missed something. I needed to understand people and how they thought and how you can motivate people to make decisions under extremely high stress.

So I went back to school later in psychology to try to understand people and in fact I have progressed over the years. Now I’m back to the molecules again. Understanding that they are chemical reactions that take place in the body when you are trying to make decisions. There are a lot of different chemicals that get dumped into your system any time your stress level goes up. So I’ve kind of gone around it in a big circle to come back to try to understand how you make decisions and particularly under stress.

During that time I had a lot of opportunities with the military and working with great leaders, and seeing how Special Ops did things and training and leading teams like that and applying the techniques. It worked out well for me and I’m very excited to still be around to share some of those thoughts with people.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Dick is a top performer. Looking back at some of his work from his bio, he’s made over 900 free fall parachute jumps, he’s a master scuba diver, and also has a black belt in Karate. On the physical side along with the mental side, he has a lot of accomplishments and so now also does these Iron Man competitions. If you want more information after our show, about Dick, his website is

In talking about decision making, I know one of the things that I looked up about how many decisions we make in a day, and I had a couple of different sources, it was about 30,000. I just want to first check, you are going to tell us more about decision making under stress, if that sounds about right or what have you seen about how many decisions we are making a day?

Dr. Dick Thompson: That’s probably in the ball park and it’s going to vary from one day to another depending on what you are doing. I think when you tell somebody they make 30,000 in a day, it’s hard for them to comprehend that. They know that they make a lot but when they think about 30,000, they say I can’t believe I do that many.

That leads me to the point that most people think when you make a decision, that you use a model like you are taught in business school. You have a problem, you have to identify it, you have to generate some alternatives, you have to select one, you have to implement it, you have to go through all of these steps.

When in reality what happens, and I have interviewed a lot of law enforcement, fire fighters and military and after seeing them make a decision, and I say how did you do that, and they walk me through this problem solving model and then I say, but you did that in about 2 seconds. How did you go through all of those steps in 2 seconds? They eventually say, well, it just came to me and I did it.

So, a lot of the decision making is being done unconsciously and that makes it much faster for you to be able to make a decision. Even when I have people say well, you know, it takes us three months on our strategic planning to go through and put our plan together and we use these models.

I say, yah but, each step in that model, each step in the decision making process, you are making all of these unconscious decisions that eventually you feed into that model. Down on the core level, it’s happening very rapidly inside your brain. Most people don’t realize that. Part of being proficient at making decisions under stress, that I’m sure we will get into in a little while, is practice. The more I practice in a particular way to make decisions, the faster that information—that solution will come to me when I’m in a stressful situation and I only have a second or two to make a decision; it just comes right out because I’ve already established it in my brain.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: We see this happen all the time, right, with people who show very low impulse control and then in a second or two we’ve got a whole Amygdala hijack going on there.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Maybe we can hear about, Dick, the impact of stress on decision making. But I think exactly like you are saying, some of this is so unconscious and you think about driving. How many decisions are you making driving unconsciously put your foot on the brake, slow down, put your blinker on. When I looked this up I was thinking 30,000, that’s way too many, and then at night I was flossing my teeth and I probably made a dozen decisions in 10 seconds: oh, I should do that back one again, oh I should do that front one. Some of those are such subtle decisions but there are so many of them, like you said that are going on unconsciously.

Dr. Dick Thompson. Yes. One of the things you just said, it’s scary. I have people on a regular basis tell me I remember leaving home to drive into work this morning, and I remember getting there, but I don’t remember anything in between.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That makes me feel so much better. I’m serious. Do you know how many times, and I’m sure people who are listening to this Dick, do we drive to an intersection that we have been to hundreds of times, and we know that we are on our way to someplace, but all of the sudden you are stopped at that intersection and you are going; am I going to work? Am I going to the store? Can you talk a little bit about how we deal with those kinds of things when we are under stress?

Dr. Dick Thompson: If I can just go back to what you said, we go to the intersection and we turn left, and we are driving and then all of the sudden we realize, I’m headed toward the office, not where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to the grocery store and I needed to turn right. Those become that pattern, that direction, those turns, those decisions, become like a superhighway in your brain and you just automatically follow that path because you do it every day even though you intended to go somewhere else.

If you lose focus, and in your book you are talking about sharpening your focus and being able to focus on what is going on, being able to be mindful, having situational awareness of what is happening inside the car, outside the car, and where you are trying to go, it can help you make the correct turn and stay in touch with where you are, realize the traffic light is red, it’s not green.

So, trying to be focused can really help you make more accurate decisions.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So say a little bit—you’ve been studying the impact of stress on decision making, especially on the front lines and the service that you have done for our country and for all the work you’ve done as a consultant professional; how does stress impact decision making?

Dr. Dick Thompson: Well if we think about that for a couple of hundred years or so people thought that decisions were based on logic and you need to have a rational logical approach to make decisions and get all of the emotions out of it.

Then more recently with the brain research and things that are going on, we discovered that no, emotions play a significant role in all of the decision-making processes. In fact if you have someone who has a brain lesion or something in areas that is going to prevent them from experiencing emotions, they can’t make decisions. There’s no value in anything they would choose.

We know that your cognitive ability is part of decision making. Your emotional ability is part of decision making, and when your stress goes up and you get all of these other chemicals dumped into your system, what happens is your ability to access all of your cognitive ability goes down. Your ability to access all of your emotional intelligence ability goes down. Since those are two primary components of being able to make good decisions, the quality and effectiveness of your decisions go down.

So stress goes up, IQ, EQ and decision making quality goes down. Trying to manage your stress can help you make better decisions.

You can listen to the entire discussion with Dr. Thompson, above, without commercials.


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