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The Power of Decision, Planning & Visualisation

It is generally noted that those persons experiencing increasing levels of stress, be they psychological or physical in origin, tend to cope better when they are able to keep their focus, and also when they are confident in their own abilities or in achieving the desired outcome in the situation. However, in certain very rare situations, extreme situations, such as in a truly life threatening situation, one may become overloaded with stimuli and be experiencing a new type of situation, new sensations, sounds and physical forces. Such things might include a car crash, a plane crash, an overturned boat, a fire, a natural disaster or similar. One would assume that the survival instinct would ensure that one would always do the right thing in such situations. However, this is quite frequently not the case. We shall examine some of reasons for this below, and how they relate to focus.

One type of behaviour, known as 'Friendly Fire Syndrome' is where a group of people do not take the imminent danger seriously enough, and are often caught by surprise and lose their lives as a result. An example might include an incident in the UK where a fire broke out in a cafeteria, which was plainly visible to those in the dining area. The fire alarm was sounded, but very few people actually left their seats and headed for the fire exit. Most just sat there and continued with their meals, until they were overpowered with smoke and perished. It is thought that these people were reluctant to leave their seats and their meals as they had paid for them, and did not want to waste their money. I myself have observed such behaviour, when sat in a pub one evening eating a meal with a friend, when the fire alarm went off. No one in the crowded pub got up to leave. Not a single one. A few people laughed and looked at each other, as if they were waiting for others to make the decision to stay or go for them. People clearly did not want ot lose their tables or drinks or could not be bothered. I myself at the time discussed how odd this was with my friend, and after some debate decided to stay, but were ready to rush to the exit which was close by. Other examples include plane crashes, where the occupants instead of escaping, go to the overhead lockers to fetch their luggage, despite the fact that the plane is engulfed in flames. In the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, after the order had been given to evacuate, most people took between 5 and 8 minutes to leave their desks, as they were keen to finish off an email, fetch their handbags, go to the toilet first, or finish an important phone call. Some even took 40 minutes to evacuate. Instead of evacuating, some sat around and discussed what they should be doing.

Psychological experiments have demonstrated this, whereby a volunteer for a psychological experiment will sit in a room and be given a form to fill out. Staged smoke will start to appear from one of the closed doors in the room. The volunteers did not realise this was part of the experiment. When alone, the vast majority of the volunteers vacated the room, not always quickly, but eventually, when the smoke started to fill up the room, did so. However, when put together with a group of other people, who were in fact actors, who were instructed to ignore the smoke and carry on filling out their forms and sitting as normal, 90% of the volunteers did not get up until smoke had filled the entire room and they could not see their hand in front of their faces. When interviewed afterwards, they could not explain their behaviour.

So what are the psychological mechanisms behind Friendly Fire Syndrome? Part of it is thought to be peer pressure and reliance on others to validate what one is experiencing. For example, one may feel that there are often so many fire drills, and that participating and taking it seriously is 'nerdy' or 'neurotic' and that acting casual about it is 'cool' or a behaviour that will not be punished by one's peer group. It also belies the tendency of people to rely on the judgement of others, often against their own instincts. For example, many people assume that someone else will have taken responsibility for the situation, contacted the EMS or Fire Department, or have initiated emergency action; and that if no one else is saying or doing anything, then it cannot be that serious. Someone else must have called the fire department or police. They must know something I don't. Right? They may think you know something they don't. In other words, if everyone thinks this way, then no one will actually do anything or take the situation seriously. This is particularly the case in work environments, where people are used to managers taking charge, and just doing their little bit and not really being concerned with or taking responsibility for the bigger picture or for the collective. People are in a sense used to not taking responsilibity for themselves or anything else in a work environment. People are used to having their immediate physical requirements looked after for them in an office or work place, and do not expect to have to make an effort in this department. People act like babies in work places in many respects or when in someone else's environment (on a plane etc.) and expect others to take charge and responsibility and are not used to thinking on their feet and taking responsiblity for the entirety of their own selves. When something unusual happens, we often assume it is intented to be happening and override our instincts, where it is a survival or criminal situation. People have regular fire drills in offices, so whenever the fire alarm does go off, their immediate reaction is one of assuming it is a bell test rather than the real thing, even if the alarm does not go off. I have observed this myself with colleagues and when I had stated it is not a drill, but it is a real alarm, people are still slow to leave, and tend to want to pick up their things, so they can be comfortable when standing outside the building at the fire evacuation spot in the carpark - even when I was having a go at them for being so sluggish and apathetic - and nearly needs to physically grab them and push them out of the door. People almost refuse to leave quickly out of principle, for many of the above reasons. It is not very clever. There is also the issue that most people are so programmed as to what to expect from our 'safe' environment, that when something does go wrong in it, people cannot take it seriously, as it is the type of thing that happens on television and not in reality. They are simply not used to seeing it. People go about their business on auto-pilot and switch off to the actual potential threats of their environment in many cases, e.g. electricity, domestic hazards, slippery surfaces etc. There is also the issue of being 'brainwashed' into one's normal routine, a form of neurosis, that one's normal routine, tasks and possessions are all important, and overrule any perception of real danger, and either the person is addicted to these and is unable to break this addiciton even if it means a good chance of being killed, or they are totally oblivious to the reality of theat. People don't want to be inconvenienced if there is a possibility that they might survive afterwards (!) People often assume that fire is not a real danger, and are often caught out by how quickly it spreads, and how quickly they can be overcome by smoke. In seconds a small fire can become a raging, uncontrollable blaze. People underestimate the power of gravity and the weight and force of water.

There are also self-confidence issues, that people may tend to not trust their own instincts, not have enough confidence in their own instincts, and do not want to stand out. They must be wrong and others must be right. Their opinion or instincts are not worth much. People are scared of standing out and want to be invisible in the crowd, like everyone else, as they are used to anyone who stands out getting stick from others, which they may well do themselves to make themselves feel better. Similar to how children behave at school. People often prefer to go along with a bad situation in the hope that it will go away rather than create a 'fuss', and if it gets worse, will still ride it out and not speak up, hoping that it can't get any worse etc. Some people do not have the self-confidence or the self-belief to stand up and be assertive and do something different from the crowd, even if there is a possibility they might die if they don't. The fear of making a 'fuss' is greater than the fear of possible death. For many people, being 'normal' and fitting into the crowd, and not sticking out is one of their main motivators in life - to do what is expected of them and no more, never mave waves as it requires confidence and 'balls'. Do you want to live your life like this? Too scared to ever be yourself or assert yourself? Does that even count as being alive?

What happens in these situations is that the person at each point in the scenario, makes a decision or belief decision, and shifts their rules. The brain feels a need for congruency and once a line has been drawn at one point, it is very hard to go back and say 'hold on, this really was dangerous'. At each step, having made one decision to do nothing, it is harder and harder to actually do anything, requiring an extreme escalation of the situation to actually instigate any action at all. If one had aske the person at the outset if they would have done nothing, they would have said no, but because the situation may build up slowly, then it is easy to fool oneself. This happens in other situations also, where a person does not wish for a particular outcome, but through external pressure ends up in a situation that totally conflicts with his values. One can look to the rise of totalitarian regimes and the actions of terrorists to verify this.

Clearly, in this types of situations, every second counts, and for every second one is inactive, the greater the chance is that one may die. Those who take responsibility and use their instincts and do not care what others are doing, are usually those who survive.

Let us use a metaphor for a moment. If you are in a survival situation, trying to escape from a remote location, for example, at the mercy of the elements, with little equipment, then to survive you need to keep making decisions. If you make a few decisions, and then stop, and stick to what you are doing arbitrarily, in spite of the fact that you will likely die if you continue to do so, as it isn't working or the situation is worsening and a line need to be drawn and a different course of action taken (e.g. is not producing you food, water, shelter or getting you in the right direction or closer to being rescued), then that is not a sensible attitude to take. Survival depends on the ability to keep making decisions. Leaving certain decisions until you are totally desperate may mean you are leaving it too late. Be proactive and use your best judgement. To never rest on your laurels or to stop questioning what you are doing. Survival situations require the ability to not get caught up emotionally in the situation too much, to be able to take a step back and use your ingenuity and analytical qualities to figure out what you need to do to survive (from a simple plan to the more complex) - to not just fight everything with brute strength but use the resources around you to your advantage; and it requires a little bravery, to be prepared to go outside your comfort zone and do what it takes to survive - to leave the known, when necessary and take a leap of faith, and trusting your instincts and yourself that you can survive and succeed. This applies in life generally, the ability to keep making decisions and to look with open eyes at what is around you and to observe any signs or feedback from your actions, and to keep perspective, is important to live a meaningful and fulfilling existence. Making decisions is one of the signs of life, of being alive. Those who have been conditioned to be indecisive or though low self-esteem or self-trust issues, find making decisions hard or impossible sometimes, but we have to accept that sometimes we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere and use that to move forwards rather than paralysed, ignorant, or not moving towards what we want. The more you make decisions, the easier it becomes, and the more naturally it comes. It is a process of learning about yourself and the world around you, and developing confidence with it. When you stop making decisions, it is easy to get into a mindset where you have 'decided' not to make more decisions, and it can be very difficult to start making decisions again after that. It is as if we have gone into some kind of 'auto-pilot' and lost our sense of cause and effect. We may observe changing circumstances around us but kind of hide from them psychologically and pretend they aren't there, hoping that just around the corner things will mysteriously work in our favour, despite our perhaps now highly flawed approach. Sometimes we fear not making the right decision, but to not act or to not decide is in a sense a decision, a negative one. You may like to think that you will give that choice point you are at at the present moment due attention at any time in the future of your choosing, but it rarely works out like that, and once the moment is gone, it is easy to park the decision or file it, often to be forgotten. Often one may actually procrastinate and put off a task or decision until a later date, knowing full well that one will never actually make it. It is fooling oneself. Part of you knows this, but part of you still believes the rational justification and 'process'. You may put the decision off to later, file away whatever paperwork it is that you were to consider, and you are half hoping that once a certain amount of time has passed, then in a sense, the urgency of whatever it was may have disappeared or it may no longer be relevant - so in a sense now you have relieved yourself of the need to make a decision on it and can discard it. You can routinely do this, whereas it would be quicker and more honest to immediately decide, 'NO, I'm never going to do that', rather than fool yourself. The more you do this, the more hopeless a decision maker you will become. To retreat from decisions is to retreat away from life itself. To stop making decisions and to stop evaluating what you are doing, and treading on blindly in spite of signs telling you that where you are going is not transpiring as you had originally envisaged, is in a sense not taking sufficient responsibility for yourself. When we give up responsibility for ourselves, we assume someone else will pick it up and we rely on others to guide us. But if we are alone in certain areas or respects, then you are in effect walking with your eyes shut and hoping you won't fall off that cliff.

As stated above, if people are not used to seeing something, like a disaster, then their ability to act will be impaired if the situation does arise. In addition, even if they have never seen the entirety of the situation before, they may not be able to act quickly or at all if they have not practised or visualised the corrective action. This is why we have fire drills in work places, to get people used to performing the actions required to escape with one's life, in controlled conditions. It is then that one can do one's thinking and planning, as in the real situation, one has no time to think, and in all likelihood is in such an extreme emotional state that one cannot think at all. During the Twin Towers disaster, nearly every single employee of Morgan Stanley made it out alive. This was because the fire warden there had been meticulous about fire evacuation drills, so the staff were trained and physiologically used to escaping the building, so when the disaster did happen, they did not need to think, they just acted on instinct. Whilst, in times of normal activity, such drills are regarded as 'boring', and those that organise them are considered 'jumped up little [insert expletive]s who get a power trip by being the boss of the fire drill, with an overinflated sense of importance' etc., they do actually have your best interests at heart. People are reluctant to step out of their usual routine, and use their imaginations or role play. By training the body to see how it looks like to escape a building, to feel intuitively where the fire exits are, it will be in a better position to respond should that situation arise. The plan for survival has been stored in one's brain and nervous system. Conversely, if one participates in a fire drill in a half-hearted manner, as one is embarrassed about it or thinks it is silly, one is training the body to not take a fire seriously, and to ingrain a slow response and then a slow and half-hearted exit. Whatever you train, you will do 'in anger'. This is why those martial artists who do not train what they actually intend to use in a life threatening situation will never amount to very much. Without bothering to note where the fire exits are, or by ignoring the safety drill at the start of a flight, one is doing oneself no service at all, as one is still wasting one's time by not listening, and all it requires is mental effort. When you are in a new environemtn, it is useful to size it up - not only for safety sake, but also to actually be 'there', so you are really in your body and in that place, rather than hidden away inside your head, semi-oblivious to the outside world and the arbitrary situations that you are focussing on and regarding as all important, which are in reality only a tiny part of what is going on around you. This is not to say that one should be paranoid about disaster continuously, but have a healthy respect for one's physical environment. People are often under the illusion that modern western societies are inherently physically safe, with no predators or physical threats.

There is clearly an issue or real threats versus perceived threats, and often people are fearful of threats that are highly unlikely to happen, e.g. muggings, knife crime, air travel and terrorism, i.e. those that are more dramatic and focussed on by the media, but are less fearful of more likely dangers like slipping over (followed by a heavy fall), electrocution with kitchen devices, car accidents, and slower deaths by eating junk food, alcohol abuse, drugs etc.

When a disaster situation does occur, as described above, most are not mentally prepared, do not have a plan stored. The body in general tends to respond best to stress inputs, up to a certain point, such as deadlines, for increasing one's personal performance (whilst remaining calm and collected, but focussed). However, beyond a certain point, increasing psychological stress does nothing to help one's performance, but merely reduces it. In extreme situations, where there are new stimuli, extreme fear etc. many people simply freeze. They are unable to physically move and do not respond to verbal cues. This is a condition known as tunnel vision. It works positively for those that can focus, i.e. it blots out all unnecessary stimuli, like the sounds of people screaming or dieing around them, and focusses the person on survival and escaping. In such states, time seems to slow down, as the brain is working at a higher level, using more of its faculties, to ensure the body's preservation. Reports and testimonies from survivors of extreme incidents are often highly inaccurate or completely unusable because of this. Conversely, those who are frozen to the spot also have tunnel vision, but in a negative sense, so they are unresponsive to verbal commands, and in the case of the sinking of the car ferry MS Estonia in 1994, people had life jackets thrown at them, but did not put them on, and just sat there until they were drowned. Those who survive are focussed on escape and see people around them doing nothing, and cannot understand why they did not act. This paralysis through fear in many ways comes down to negative beliefs. The person that acts best in these situations is the person who has a sense of certainty, who does not even consider the possibility of not making it out. The person who lacks confidence and certainty in that moment, is much less likely to make it out. Clearly, having a plan ingrained into one's brain before, be it through visualisation, can be executed, albeit with some difficulty, even if one is partially paralysed through fear, as no thinking is required. Those with no plan, who are also not able to think, often cannot act. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Self-Confidence allows one to deal with greater levels of stress successfully and still perform. Clearly those who are able to rely on their instincts more and are more used to relying on their instincts, rather than solely on thinking, are in a better position to deal with unknown and chaotic situations that life sometimes brings.

I have myself trained in various 'extreme' sports, such as skydiving, and when training with professionals, safety drills are taken extremely seriously. Sure one has a joke and a laugh, but drills are always performed. For example, cave diving training is nearly purely consisting of instructor simulated emergencies, and every training dive sees a simulated emergency exit, be it one diver out of gas, losing one's mask, losing the main line in the cave (i.e. lost), light failure etc. Every cave dive starts with an 'S-Drill', which is an out of air simulation, where who donates one's regulator to one's 'out of air' buddy, testing the ease of procedure for each dive time member, both ways around. In my skydiving training, I was taught to perform a simulated 'cut away' procedure, which is where you cut away your main parachute when it is not open or deployed properly, and deploy one's reserve parachute. Few skydivers bother to practice this drill before each skydive, but I always did. On more than one occasion, I had to perform this in a real situation, where thinking was very difficult. The first time, the handle for the main parachute was stuck fast, and on the second occasion his parachut did not deploy properly. I was pleased I had gone through the drills before getting on the plane, and it had made me feel more relaxed and at ease, as I knew I could handle any outcome. The same applies to virtually any situation. I did discuss both incidents with instuctors after the event, when safely on the ground, and possible explanations were offered, or alternative solutions, which were noted, but at the time, there was little time to think. Next time, hopefully there won't be one, then I was even better prepared to deal with it. We are not talking about being paranoid, or fearful, but just having a healthy respect for what one is doing, and being real rather than living in cuckoo land. Being better able to handle one's focus in all situations. It is of course possible to be excessively fearful too and in a 'fight or flight' nervous mind set by focussing on the negative outcomes all the time. One wants to aim to see things as they really are, and not more or less negatively so.

© 2006-2024 Fabian Dee