How hunger affects decision making

In a sense, life is the sum of the decisions you make.

The better the decision, the better the likely outcome.

With this in mind, it pays to spend time learning how to get better at it. Especially those with the very important job of dispensing justice.

In 2012, researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel and Columbia University examined over 1,000 decisions made by eight Israeli judges who ruled on convicts’ parole requests.

Their study discovered that the judges delivered significantly harsher verdicts when they were hungry. 

Right after breakfast, they approved around 65% of parole cases but only about 15% right before lunch. After eating, their approval rate went back up to 65%.  

Why is this?

A 2016 study conducted by a team at The University of Gothenburg can help shed some light on the matter. Their research revealed that a hormone produced in the stomach called ghrelin seems to affect the brain’s ability to think rationally, making us more impulsive.

It’s also likely impacted by ‘decision fatigue’ caused by making repeated decisions over time. As the judges get to the end of a session, they become tired and so tend to opt for the decision which requires the least mental effort.  

The message here is clear. If you’re in the position of having to make a difficult decision try to avoid doing so on an empty stomach.

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How a simple error caused a $125 million spacecraft to vanish

On September 23rd 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft vanished. 


Gone for ever. 

The management team at NASA promptly set out on a lengthy investigation to answer the following question: How does a $125 million spacecraft simply disappear?

After months of work, the report eventually revealed the root cause to be a failure to convert from imperial units (pounds) to metric units (newtons).

The engineers at the Orbiter’s manufacturer Lockheed Martin typically use imperial units in their measurements. The opposite was true for NASA who use the metric system. 

As a result, the software of the craft’s control thrusters measured force in pounds but a separate piece of software assumed the data was in newtons. 

This small error resulted in it flying more than 50 miles off course.

Eventually, it flew too close to Mars and disappeared into the Martian atmosphere.


A similar and equally simple miscalculation error occurred on an Air Canada flight in the 1980s. Fortunately, for the passengers on board, the pilot was also an experienced glider and managed to fly the aircraft (without fuel) to safety.   

The above expensive mistakes illustrate how small errors in complex systems can have a catastrophic impact and highlights the importance of checklists as an effective and often lifesaving tool.

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The Art of the Checklist

When it comes to solving problems or making difficult decisions do not underestimate the power of a simple checklist. 

The chances of you dying in an aeroplane crash are extremely rare.

In fact, if you live in the US you are more likely to die strangling yourself in your own bedsheets.

This is because modern aircraft, if properly serviced, are extremely reliable.

The majority of accidents are, in fact, caused by pilot error. Around 80% according to the aircraft manufacturer Boeing (interestingly this was the reverse in the early days of aviation where 80% of accidents were attributable to mechanical failure). 

To help mitigate mistakes made by pilots, Cockpit Resource Management was introduced in 1979 by NASA psychologist John Lauber as part of a study to increase overall flight safety. A big part of this was to introduce simple pre-flight checklists.  

The TED speaking surgeon Atul Gawande wrote a great book about the role of checklists in massively improving aviation safety and how he adapted this approach to reduce the incidences of surgical errors.

His compelling book The Checklist Manifesto makes the case that experts (anyone experienced at their job regardless of their field) often tend to overlook the obvious or trivial.

Unfortunately, it is precisely these ‘small’ errors that in aviation and surgery can lead to the loss of human life.

Checklists can also be a handy tool for solving problems in your own life. They can help you better understand the problem and its potential solutions. 

One tip is make yourself a checklist of impartial questions to ask yourself as a way of examining your own thinking and biases. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  1. Have I looked at both sides to this story in equal measure?
  2. Have any existing prejudices impacted my decision making?
  3. Am I approaching this problem in the same way to other ‘similar’ problems in the past?
  4. Have I done sufficient research to see if someone has solved this problem previously?
  5. How would ‘X’ go about making this decision? 

To learn more about the art of problem solving register for our upcoming course ‘How to think like Sherlock’ which is packed full of useful techniques and approaches like the one above. 

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How the outcome of one tough decision could have sunk Intel

Success in business, like success in life, is partly about the quality of the decisions that you make.

The right decision can transform the future of your company. The wrong one can easily do the opposite.

Since its founding in 1968, Intel had built a solid business and a strong reputation as makers of memory chips. In fact, for a while, it was the only maker of them globally.

However, by the early 1980’s, the American company faced increasing competition in their core memory chips business from the Japanese. Over the next five years, Intel saw their profits tumble as they fell behind their rivals in the speed and quality of production. At the same time, a small division within the company had begun to produce a new type of product: the microprocessor.

As the CEO of Intel, Andy Grove was faced with a momentous decision. Should they double down on their emerging microprocessor business? Or should they mount an assault on the Japanese and win back their lost ground in memory chips?

Grove was in a genuine quandary.

Most of the senior management were in favour of maintaining the status quo. Why risk going after this emerging microprocessor industry when they had enjoyed so much success with memory chips? 

One day he found himself in the office of Gordon Moore (one of the founders of Intel and the author of Moore’s Law) discussing what they should do.

As he looked out of the window a question popped into his head and he asked Gordon, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”

Without a pause, Gordon responded, “He would get us out of memories.”

By altering their perspective on the decision they were debating, they were able to look at it with the eyes of someone unencumbered by Intel’s historical legacy in memory chips.

Since that momentous decision in 1985, Intel went on to dominate the microprocessor market.

As Chip and Dan Heath put it in their excellent book Decisive: How to make better decisions in life and work, ‘Grove’s story reveals a flaw in the way many experts think about decisions.’ They make the point that his choice was not difficult because he lacked options or information. It was difficult because ‘the short term pressures and political wrangling clouded his mind and obscured the long-term need to exit the memory business.’

The Heath brothers share this story as an example of the importance of ‘Attaining distance before deciding’, identifying it as one of ‘The Four Villains of Decision Making.‘ 

Next time you’re faced with a difficult decision, try to ensure that you get some distance from it before choosing what to do. Otherwise, your initial reaction might lead you to make a critical mistake. 

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