House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently advised the White House to "Take a deep breath" before making decisions relating to the escalation of tensions with Iran.

Chess Grandmasters and Navy SEALs follow Nancy Pelosi's advice to make better decisions under pressure. So could taking a deep breath also help with business decision making?

A recent collaborative study by researchers from Belgium, France, and the Seychelles, tried to answer this question with an experiment based on an "in-basket test," a testing protocol used by organizations to assess how well potential employees make decisions under the kind of pressure encountered in a typical managerial environment.

The study tested a 5-2-7 breathing exercise.

The researchers recruited 56 management students aged between 19 and 29 years from a business school in France. The students were divided at random into two groups, a control group and a "breathing exercise" group.

All the students were told to imagine they were in charge of a fictional retail clothing company and were given information about the company's background, its staff, the major issues it was facing, letters, memos, telephone messages, and notes. After reviewing the information (designed to feel psychologically overwhelming), each student had to make seven rapid-fire business decisions in the form of seven multiple choice questions.

For two minutes before answering the questions, the control group relaxed while the breathing exercise group practiced breathing in a 5-2-7 pattern, according to the instructions:

  • Inhale, count to five
  • Hold breath after inhaling, count to two
  • Exhale, count to seven
  • Repeat.

The 5-2-7 pattern breathing exercise improved decision-making performance and prevented stress under overwhelming psychological pressure.

  1. It prevented students from feeling stressed after the decision-making test. 
  2. On average, each student in the "breathing exercise" group made one more correct decision than each student in the control group, getting 3.3 out of 7 decisions right, compared to 2.3 out of 7 (s.d. ±1.36 vs ± 1.35).

The link between alertness and decision-making.

The decision you make in a specific context can change quite strikingly from one moment to the next

Different factors explain this variability. One factor is "alertness," a psychological measure of "arousal" or how "awake" you feel.

Arousal levels increase under psychological pressure.

Mental performance improves as arousal increases, until a critical point, beyond which too much arousal reduces the signal to noise ratio of what you're trying to focus on. It becomes harder to think clearly and concentrate. 

Eventually, too much arousal triggers stress.

Why did the 5-2-7 breathing exercise improve decision making?

The rhythm at which we breathe is generated by a part of the brain located very near the site that plays a core role in arousal. 

Early evidence suggests the two sites may influence each other, so that modifying the rhythm of breathing modifies the level of arousal. By curbing a rise in arousal, breathing at a slower pace may prevent psychological pressure from inciting stress

In the experiment, the 5-2-7 breathing exercise prevented arousal levels from rising after the first part of the test. This maintained alertness at a level that was optimal for decision making and that did not trigger stress

Consequently, students using the breathing protocol did not feel stressed after the test and made better decisions.

Putting it into practice.

In a recent History Channel documentary called The Human Brain, Navy SEALs training at the Special Warfare Command in San Diego were seen using a breath control technique similar to the 5-2-7 exercise as a form of "arousal control" under intense psychological pressure. They became calmer and improved their mental performance within minutes by prolonging each exhalation and breathing at a slower pace.

This recent study has shown breath control techniques may rapidly enhance decision making and limit stress in the business world.

The 5-2-7 breathing exercise can be slotted into a two-minute walk to a presentation or a two-minute wait before a meeting where you expect to make tough decisions. Scheduling the exercise before events that are likely to be stressful may also mitigate the level of stress you experience, diminishing your long-term risk of burnout. 

Entrepreneurial success depends on making the right decision at the right time. If the study's results are proven correct, a 5-2-7 breathing exercise may be all that stands between the worst business decision you could ever make and the best business decision of your life.