Is Fear Affecting Your Decision-Making?

Last Updated Apr 22, 2009 7:40 PM EDT

According to Emory University neuroeconomist Gregory Berns, fear of losing our jobs and savings may be impairing our decision-making ability and making us risk averse. I don't know about you, but the thought of corporate America crippled by fear during an economic crisis scares the crap out of me.

In a N.Y. Times article, Berns said this:
Everyone I know is scared. We are caught in a spiral in which we are so scared of losing our jobs, or our savings, that fear overtakes our brains. [That] makes it impossible to concentrate on anything but saving our skin --

Ultimately, no good can come from this type of decision-making. Fear prompts retreat. It is the antipode to progress. Just when we need new ideas most, everyone is seized up in fear, trying to prevent losing what we have left. When everyone does this at once, the result is a downward economic spiral.

The most concrete thing that neuroscience tells us is that when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.
Since most of the managers and executives I know are pretty guarded about their feelings, it's hard for me to determine if this phenomenon is really having a significant and broad effect on American business. So that's the first order of business: are you observing this sort of behavior in your company, and if so, to what extent?

If so, here's a story that might help:

When the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, my Silicon Valley startup couldn't raise capital and ultimately filed for bankruptcy. As CEO, I lost my job. To make matters worse, I was heavily invested in tech stocks. On a dead cat bounce, I doubled down, thinking the market had bottomed. I was dead wrong.

I was so disappointed with myself I couldn't look my wife in the eye for weeks. Then, one fateful night, I had a thought. So what? What's the worst that can happen? So I don't retire young. Big deal. I've got at least another decade, maybe two, of earning potential. I'll make the money back or die trying.
Once I let go and stopped worrying about my job and bank account, I was free of fear. Suffice to say that everything turned out fine, but it wouldn't have if I hadn't had that moment of clarity. To summarize, I'd say that obsessing over your career and money has a negative effect on both. Hope that helps.

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