Wired for Survival

The Rational (and Irrational) Choices We Make, from the Gas Pump to Terrorism

Wired for Survival
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“Enough of our ancestors have made good enough choices that the human species has adapted.” So says Margaret Polski, who, in Wired for Survival, takes us on a journey into the way we think and how it affects the choices we make.

Polski warns early on that her exploration delves into the neurosciences, which are only on the verge of discovery and not always easy to comprehend. It’s a warning well taken, for some of the text in the book may go considerably beyond the casual reader’s ability to absorb it. Consider this sentence, for example: “Not only do we not behave the way we think we behave or ought to behave, we apparently do not think the way we think we think.”

But don’t let that kind of language intimidate you. Wired for Survival may be challenging at times, but it is worthwhile reading. To begin, the book offers a solid explanation of the way the brain and nervous system operate. This leads into an interesting discussion of “the brain and survival.” Polski provides one of the better overviews of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), demonstrating how an event such as 9/11 “rewires us for trauma.”

Next the author tackles the relationship between thinking and choosing, concluding that “it takes a whole body –– including the brain –– as well as cues in our environment to think and choose.” Polski addresses such intriguing topics as intuitive choice, contextual thinking and “getting a feel” for things.

Feeling Our Way

Research being conducted in cognitive neuroscience reveals an interesting aspect of human nature: the fact that our logical decision making is hampered by bias. Says Polski: “We tend to search for information that confirms what we already believe to be true and block out information that challenges our existing beliefs. … We rationalize more than we reason.…” This is an insight that should prove especially helpful to managers.

Things get increasingly complex when others are involved, because “social signals” play a role in our thought process. As a result, says Polski, achieving change is not as simple as changing one’s mind: “…we live and work in social groups in particular environments that may or may not be conducive to the changes we wish to or ought to make.” This is one reason why organizational change is so difficult to achieve.

Rethinking Difficult Questions

Wired for Survival is most useful in its application to contemporary problem-solving. When faced with a meaningful threat, such as 9/11, or the current financial crisis, Polski notes, “our powers of reason can fail us when they are most needed.”

The author sees the need for humans to turn this self-destructive behavior around, reducing the bias associated with thinking and choice in the face of modern-day threats. Polski claims we are “wired for survival,” but survival itself requires changing our minds and our environment. This, says Polski, demands new ways of thinking.

Recognizing that the road to change is no easy task, in closing Margaret Polski offers some thoughtful guidelines:

• To change the “mental maps” that may impede growth, one needs to acquire new experiences, suspend judgment, and understand what other people are doing and why they are doing it.

• Identifying key social networks and figuring out how they are organized will help make change easier.

• The appropriate use of logic tools will make us more adaptive, despite the fact that most thinking and choice is intuitive.

In addition, the author points that the natural balance of the body can impede unbiased thinking. That’s why it is a good idea to use information from many sources.

In an era of constant uncertainty and change, it is reassuring to know we each have the ability to survive the challenges, both small and catastrophic, that we will inevitably face. Wired for Survival offers insights and strategies for helping all of us to do so.