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Why do people make such poor "in the moment" decisions?

What’s Next After “Whack-a-Hazard” or “Whack-a-Person”?

My friend Jennifer is risk adverse, so much so that she won’t travel overseas because she says “bad things happen to people in other countries”. So imagine my intrigue, when she told me she could have died doing the school run, picking up her daughter!

On this day, she was running late. The school has a strict pick-up time (3.15 pm) and her daughter doesn’t have a mobile phone so she doesn’t know whether mum’s forgotten her or worse still, something bad happened. This makes Jennifer stressed.

It’s now 3.15pm and still 5 minutes away from her daughter. She needs to make a right turn into a side street across two lanes of traffic. Most days there are plenty of breaks in the traffic, but not today. The traffic is particularly heavy making it difficult to turn. She waits impatiently. The pressure builds. Suddenly a gap in the traffic appears. It’s much smaller than she would normally accept but she’s stressed. She quickly turns the steering wheel and “floors it”. She makes it but not before she hears the blast of a truck horn and the screeching of tyres.

She knows she was lucky and heads to school for the pick-up.

This story highlights a common problem, why do people make such poor “in the moment” decisions?

Why would Jennifer, a very risk-adverse person, act so out-of-character?

Why do people who know the risks associated with road tolls, still drive when fatigued? They have seen the ads!

Why do people who know texting while driving is illegal and increases the risk considerably, still do it?

In these situations the conscious mind is fully informed, but they still do it. Could it be that the conscious mind is not involved with these types of “in the moment” decisions in any significant way?

There are additional forces at play influencing us under these situations which we have never been aware of …. until recently. Much of this information has only come to light in the last 10 years or so, some of it in the last 5 years.

What we have learned is neurochemicals come into play at various critical moments, such as when we are rushing, frustrated or fatigued. Other neurochemicals pre-program our autopilot.

These chemicals hijack our ability to make good, informed decisions “in the moment”. As humans we do not get a choice about this. This is what our subconscious mind does. It’s the way we are wired.

Importantly though, it all happens below our conscious awareness, but undeniably influence the decisions we make. And because it happens below our conscious awareness, most people catastrophically underestimate how much goes on in our subconscious mind.

Neuroscience has shown that 95% of what we do is subconscious. It has also discovered a large number of decisions (which we think were made consciously) originate subconsciously. If you don’t believe it, challenge yourself by watching this video of Marcus Du Sautoy

The problem in safety is we view these incidents as “bad” conscious decisions. In other words, we assume people are rational and they should have known better. But the neuroscience is educating us that there are other things that dictate the play.

Consider the insidious practice of texting while driving. Consciously, people know it is illegal and know there is a considerable increase in risk. But subconsciously, it doesn’t feel dangerous because they have done it plenty of times and nothing “bad” has happened.

When people are fully informed but it doesn’t feel dangerous, which one wins?

We have all been there at some time. The way it feels usually wins. Now you know why. The subconscious wins because it drives 95% of what we do.

Until we use our understanding of the subconscious to help us with our “in the moment” decisions, we are treating the symptom, not the cause.

Interested in finding out more? Go to


Read more about this in Third Generation Safety by Cristian Sylvestre.

Cristian takes what neuroscience is revealing about how the brain functions and explains how our human limitations impact our personal safety and what individuals and organisations can do about it. Download section 1 for FREE

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