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Why We Often Do Stupid Stuff

Not long ago, Car and Driver Magazine conducted a test to compare normal driver braking times against “impaired” braking conditions, such as drinking, texting, or checking email while driving.

The test involved a driver going 70 miles per hour (on a straight course) who was instructed to hit the brakes as soon as he saw a red light come on. The results were surprising – and sobering.

When compared to normal braking time, driving at the legally drunk limit added four feet to the unimpaired braking distance. Reading an email added 36 feet. Sending a text added an astonishing 70 feet. Way more than enough to make the difference between life and death!

Clearly, it makes no sense to check email or engage in texting while driving. It puts our own lives in danger as well as the lives of others. So why do we do it?

Blame it on that 2.7 pounds (on average) of red, white, and black matter that resides between our ears.

The human brain is a remarkable organ, yet at times it can be our worst enemy.
It comes equipped with remarkable cognitive, reasoning, and creative powers. But it also has many built-in patterns of thinking and perceiving that do not always serve us well. Two of the worst offenders are the tendency to see what we want to see and to screen out data that contradicts our prevailing view of the world.

In today’s “gotta keep moving as fast as I can” world, we’ve succumbed to the belief that speed trumps survival. So we make decisions and take actions that logically make no sense but serve the underlying belief by the brain that speed is of the essence.

We know that texting while driving can cause fatal accidents. Yet we do it anyway because our brains tell us, “I am in a hurry and whatever is on my phone is more important.” We know that drinking and driving is dangerous as well. Yet, too often, people ignore obvious signs of inebriation and climb behind the wheel. Their reasoning? “I won’t get caught,” or “No problem, I’m fine to drive.”

In the business world, these built-in brain tendencies may not threaten our lives, but they can certainly put our companies at risk.

When we get stressed (which is most of the time these days), the brain seeks comfort in what it knows and what it is familiar with. When looking to solve problems, it tends to go to what has worked for it previously. Often, it goes to what has not worked just because it’s familiar. Why do you think the phrase “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is so often and accurately used?

Blockbuster, Borders, and Kodak offer recent examples of very successful companies that got led astray by faulty brain patterns. It’s not hard to imagine the boardroom conversations that took place as leaders in these companies succumbed to the tendency to see what they wanted to see and go with the familiar:

“People won’t wait two days to get a DVD in the mail.” “They’ll never stand in line outside a grocery store to get movies from a vending machine.” “Who wants to read an e-book? People like the feel of actually turning pages.” “We can’t make any money on digital photography.”

We all struggle to keep up in this hyper-changing world. But often, the shortcuts we take as a result of our built-in brain tendencies do not serve us well. Especially those that stop us from taking the time to analyze the data, consider what has changed, and explore how we need to change with it.

Take the NFL. They’ve had data for more than a decade indicating the seriousness of player concussions. Had they really analyzed the data instead of seeing what they wanted to see, they likely would have taken action much sooner to improve player safety. But they didn’t, and now they’re facing multiple lawsuits that could cost millions of dollars. Not to mention the fact that many players’ lives have been irreparably damaged due to repeated concussions.

As leaders, we need to regularly check in with our brains to see what biases, tendencies, and thought bubbles are driving our thought processes. Otherwise, that 2.7 pounds can lead us astray without our even knowing it.

The human brain can be friend or foe. It all depends on how we use it.

Don’t text while driving, even when your brain tells you it’s okay!

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