Good People Making Bad Decisions

The last twelve months have really made me think about this idea of “good people making bad decisions.” When we are directly impacted by those decisions, we become quite vocal, and often quick to demonise. Whether it is those clearing shelves of toilet rolls, or asserting that having to wear a mask in public is an infringement of civil liberty. As for the conspiracies ......

How often do we see others doing things that we judge to be irrational, unreasonable or inappropriate? Yet, how often are we likely to apply such labels to our positions?

If we are honest with ourselves the answer is probably “quite a lot". We are talking about judgement here. The problem is that it is not a level playing field. We judge others by their behaviours, but we judge ourselves by our intentions. Or more simply others by “what”, self by “why".

These fundamentally different frames produce very different outcomes.

The Power of WHY

Author and speaker Simon Sinek wrote about this in Start with Why. He outlined from a marketing perspective how businesses that organised themselves around why they do something, rather than what they do create greater brand loyalty and often an almost emotional relationship. This can manifest itself in irrational behaviour, we would queue overnight for a new model iPhone, but we don’t for a Samsung or a Nokia, or any other brand.

This is not about business though. Like this blog is about us.

When I studied NLP about 10 years ago I was profoundly moved by one specific phrase, “everything that we do, we do with positive intention.” If we open ourselves to this idea it is a game changer for our personal and social psychology. When faced by apparently irrational or antisocial behaviour we seek the “Why". Instead of being affronted or challenged we become curious.

When I seek to understand your intentions, to recognise your “Why", I level the playing field. Suddenly I can measure your actions within the same frame of reference as I do my own. If we can do this, it is a more logical rather judgemental analysis, more along the lines of “what would I do in such a situation.”

Framing Intention

So we can open ourselves to the idea of recognising intention in others. What are looking for?

Behaviour is an expression of emotional need. Paul Gilbert in The Compassionate Mind talks about three core mammalian motivational systems, Seeking, Fear, and Rest. At a primitive level we are all busy either looking for something, protecting our self from challenge or threats, or resting/quietly getting on with business as usual.

The key bit is an understanding of how these are playing out for others. Another way of thinking about this is “what kind of stressor are they reacting to.” Physician Gabor Mate cites meta-research in the US which outlines three universal causes of stress: uncertainty, lack of information and loss of control. These are stressors for everyone, each of us are differently calibrated, but each of us are affected by these.

The key to understanding the intentions and behaviour of others is recognising the similarities between us.

As an aside, anger often arises from a frustration of the seeking system. In workshops of often describe the difference in experience in eating Cadbury's Dairy Milk or Hershey Bars. If you have, you will know! We are often angered by the behaviour of others because it frustrates our need – we cannot buy toilet rolls or fresh eggs because someone else has brought them all.

Good people making bad decisions

If we release our judgement, we can recognise the “bad decisions" do not arise from “bad people". In the individual context they are often the right decision. Ours own decisions are rarely viewed by self because we can justify them linkage to intention. How often do we see ourselves then lost in explaining ourselves when our actions have not landed well with others rather than pausing to recognise that we might have offended, and to acknowledge that.

So why are these decisions being made? The problem is that bad decisions are often arise from a perception of risk or a place of fear. Contemporary psychological and behavioural research recognises that our decisions are flawed in such situations. If we can make them at all, in extreme cases cognition is simply disabled.

Variations of behaviour are more a reflection of individual resilience, and all the multitude of elements that underlie that. In context variations are infinite.

We are fed a constant stream of “risk" from the media, they know that this engages us more than good news. It connects with our innate negative/safety biases. We need to engage a little reflection around the information we are fed rather than simple accepting. This helps to disengage emotional reaction which often leads to the “bad behaviours".

In these challenging times it is important that we pause and try to recognise intention in others as well as ourselves. We are all trying to do the right thing.

This is the empathic approach. This is what draws us together and in challenging times like these we need to recognise community. Together we are stronger, even if together is apart.

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