There are lots and lots of ideas out there about how you can improve your decision making. Many of them boil down to getting more data (or perspectives) and slowing down your thought process. But what if the types of decisions you need to make can't, by their nature, be made after lots of cold deliberation? What if your work calls for hot cognition?

"Hot cognition is the term psychologists use to describe high-speed, high-pressure decision making--that's decision making in the face of risk, when emotions play a heavy role," Steven Kotler, director of research at Flow Genome Project, explained on Forbes recently. "Because hot cognition is automatic, it is often subject to bias and thus prone to error." 

Soldiers and first responders need to make a lot of hot decisions, but so do executives, and with the pace of business becoming faster and faster, you'll probably need to make even more in the future. So while it might be ideal to decide everything important with a cool head and an arsenal of logic tricks to reinforce our unreliable human brains, the fact remains that many entrepreneurs can't avoid sometimes making high-stakes calls under intense time pressure. Is there any way to get better at this sort of thinking?

Kotler makes a couple of unexpected--and surprisingly fun sounding--suggestions for entrepreneurs who want to better their hot-cognition skills.

1. Invest in an Xbox

You might have trouble convincing your skeptical spouse that you're not just slacking off, but according to Kotler, playing fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping, first-person shooter games has actually been shown to exercise and strengthen our ability to make solid decisions under pressure.

"In a study out of the University of Minnesota, frequent players of first-person shooter games (which are thick with hot decisions) learn--not surprisingly--how to make them better," he writes, though there are, of course, a few common sense caveats to how much benefit you can really expect from shooting computer-generated enemy combatants. "Until we have truly immersive VR, there's a pretty sizable gap between the level of heat a gamer feels playing Halo and the level a CEO feels in the boardroom."

2. Hit the Slopes

So what beats annihilating virtual ninjas or zombies? Getting out there and turning up the pressure in real life is even better for training your brain. Thankfully, actual zombies or hostile ninjas aren't required. A good surf break or snowboard run will do the trick.

"There's no substitute for action and adventure sports as a hot-cognition training ground," says Kotler. "Surfing, skiing, snowboarding, skydiving, rock climbing, kite surfing, etc, are all activities chock-a-block with hot decisions. When there's real risk of physical harm, heat is built into the system. If you start overthinking any decision--which is what that extra heat often triggers--you block automated skills and, well, crash and burn." 

And yes, these skills you exercise on the slopes do transfer. "We know from the neuroscience of plasticity, those hot skills hardwire new neural networks that then cross disciplines," Kotler asserts. "The better we get at making hot decisions coolly in an action-sports environment, the better we get at making them in the boardroom." 

Of course, not everyone will be won over to the charms of jumping out of airplanes (personally, I struggle to reach the third step on a ladder) or dedicating hours to Call of Duty by Kotler's argument. But if these sorts of activities appeal to you, it might be nice to know you're not just risking a broken leg (or an annoyed better half) for fun alone. These activities just might make you a better decision maker.

Any action-sports enthusiasts want to weigh in on how (or if) participating in your sport has affected your decision-making abilities?

Published on: Sep 24, 2014
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