With 64 seconds remaining in the Giants—Patriots Super Bowl Game, the Giants were trailing the Patriots 17-15, and were within striking distance to score. With an immediate Giants score, the Patriots would get the ball back, and have time to attempt a scoring drive. So the Giants wanted to score, but first use up most of the time remaining on the clock. The Patriots needed the Giants to score immediately, so they would have enough time remaining to mount a drive to keep hope alive for winning the game.
The Giant’s Ahmad Bradshaw was handed the ball, instructed to ground himself a yard away from the goal rather than scoring the touchdown.
The Patriots cleared the path for an immediate touchdown. Bradshaw tried to stop himself at the one-yard line. It was not only counterintuitive, but it opposed well-grooved superhighways in his brain traveled for many years. His trained instincts and brain wiring was to take the ball and run across the goal line. The Giants’ season-long mantra, Finish, provided further context. His brain wouldn’t let him do it. He instinctively kept going even though he clearly heard quarterback Eli Manning say, “Don’t score.” Bradshaw later told reporters, “I tried, but I couldn’t do it.”
If this accomplished professional athlete could not outsmart his brain with a world championship on the line, how can we hope to make rational decisions while browsing at Macy’s or making an online stock purchase?
Many high stakes decisions are made at stressful times. Mentor coaching with pro athletes and executives has repeatedly shown me how decision-makers are often under emotional stress, skewing their potential to evaluate options, leading to a greater reliance on emotional decisions and default options. At times of stress, we do two things:
Our minds reduce decisions to rely on heuristics—rules of thumb. Heuristics work well on a daily basis for simple decisions. They are generally right, and the cost of errors is small. Yet in high-stakes decisions, simple rules of thumb (heuristics) tend to be a poor method of forecasting and decision making.
Our brains rely on default programming that has been conditioned by numerous repetitions of stimulus—response. This neural conditioning is simple: the meaning we attach to a stimulus determines our behavior.
The neuroscience of high-stakes decisions becomes prominent at crucial times. The paradox is that when time is pressured, the state of mind is charged, so that deep thought, reflection on principles, and contemplative pause all become elusive. Bradshaw simply couldn’t suddenly override years of training and tens of thousands of practice behaviors that etched default pathways in his brain.
A state of mind is vulnerable to emotional contagion, greed, and peer pressure to each trump logic. When you see friends making significant profits trading stocks or flipping real estate, the natural inclination is to want in on the action. As more join the movement, prices rise for a while and it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But then some event reverses the momentum—bursts the bubble—and turns optimism into panic. Herd mentality then pushes people to join the momentum to buy, or to flee, the market. A hot stock tip, a business deal gone sour, or a family tragedy may create an alarm response with an emotional state of mind geared for survival rather than use of logic.
Habits are difficult to change because of the way the brain functions. Many patterns of thinking and behaving are engrained in circuits deep within the brain. Information processed in the amygdala (the center of strong emotion) and the hippocampus (where meanings are attached) are both in the midbrain and processing in these parts of the brain are not brought to conscious attention.
An instant way of grounding and centering yourself to restore a balanced state of mind to access logic and reason may be to use a mantra. See Mantras and Self-Regulation.