“Hot cognition” is the term psychologists use to describe decision-making under pressure, decision-making in the face of risk, decision-making when emotions play a heavy role. It is opposed to cold cognition, which is the pragmatic, logical, and—most importantly—emotionless variety.
But here’s the thing—because hot cognition is automatic, it is often subject to bias and thus prone to error. We’ve been making more and more of these errors lately and they’ve been sending shockwaves through our society and economy.
Used to be, in the languid days of the last century, people actually had time to make cold decisions. Governments and corporations had time to analyze and evaluate. But these days, with phrases like “unforeseen threats” “rapid iteration” and “lean and agile” ruling the roost, those once cold decisions have warmed up considerably.
What’s more, even those people who normally have to make hot decisions—presidents, CEO’s surgeons, soldiers, and police officers—are having to make more of them, in shorter time frames, and under greater stress. Meaning the heat is hotter than normal.
Even though we’re supposed to be in the age of Big Data—where human fallibility has been replaced by hard numbers and we can all sit back and let the cloud tell us what to do next, we’re not off the hook. Information doesn’t yet equal wisdom, and throwing a thousand variables into an equation doesn’t always bring us any closer to a right answer.
And our always online world isn’t helping. Ceaseless media exposure comes with a cost. A lot of the stuff we’re exposed to—specifically advertising and things that function like advertising (like clickbait headlines and blog titles)—are designed to turn down cold processes and turn up hot ones.
Meme-spreading, what we call “virality,” is what these impulse triggers look like in action—when a video goes viral it’s not because we rationally decide we absolutely have to know what that cute little kitty does next.
As Aaron Reid, chief scientist for Sentient Decision Science points out in a recent blog:
Catchy slogans, such as “Hungry? Grab a Snickers’,” Nike’s “Just Do It,” and Sprite’s “Obey Your Thirst,” tap into these visceral [hot] states and motivate immediate consumer behavior. As a result, consumers often fail to return to a cold-state, where the rational mind might be able carry greater weight on the decision.
Adding insult to injury, for most, the breakneck pace of modern living also means a lot less sleep. When events outpace abilities, we tend to sacrifice shut-eye. Unfortunately, when we’re tired, we’re also more emotional—meaning we’re prone to turning deliberately cold decisions into accidentally hot ones.
The point here is that all this heat isn’t helping. To truly thrive in today’s world, we need to roll back the tide of cognitive warming—we’ve got to learn to turn hot decisions back into cooler ones and not the other way around.
And there’s only one way to do that, to undo the fast-paced, information overloaded, sleep-deprived mayhem we’re now calling daily life—deliberate practice.
What’s the easiest way to practice? Well, one place to start is video games, especially, as new research shows, shoot ‘em up games. 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.
But there are limits to what we can achieve via XBOX. 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.
This is why, if you really want to learn to make hot decisions like cold ones, you might be best off getting out of the office and taking a weekend someplace wild.
For those of us who are craving a little more intensity and immediacy than the suburban grind offers, but who are understandably hesitant to actually risk life and limb, there’s no substitute for action and adventure sports as a hot cognition training ground.
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 over thinking any decision—which is what that extra heat often triggers—you block automated skills and, well, crash and burn.
Success in any of these sports means learning to make hot decisions in the moment as if we had had all day to consider them in advance.
Let me give you a concrete, albeit extreme, example. Click on this link and check out the first video—it’s snowboard legend Tom Burt riding Alaska’s Cordova Peak in 1997. Still considered one of the steepest and wildest descents in snowboarding history, the thing to pay attention to is the conversation that occurs before the riding starts. It’s literally a discussion between Burt and his camera crew about all the possible ways he can get killed on the way down. There are dozens and dozens and dozens—and all of them messy and hot.
But Burt survived because action sports like snowboarding are incredible real world hot decision-making training environments. He had decades training himself to turn on a dime, to shift his weight based on the feel of the snow under his feet, to dodge avalanches before they claimed him—all perfected long before he attempted that historic run on Cordova.
And it’s very hard, outside of the world of action and adventure sports or close-quarters combat, to get this kind of practice.
Consider this far less extreme example from Steven’s past weekend, which he spent downhill mountain biking at Angel Fire in the mountains of New Mexico. Trails at Angel Fire offer roughly 2000 vertical feet of descent and—as a very loose approximation—require about one decision per two feet, or about 1000 decisions per lap. Since an average day is about nine laps, then Steven made around 9000 decisions last Saturday. And, as downhill riding takes place at speeds between 20 and 40 mph on trails that are root and rock gnarled, jump packed, and tree-lined, every one of those decisions were hot.
In what other environment can you make 9000 dangerous decisions in a day? In the real world, there’s no easy way to get that much practice. In business? No chance. In entrepreneurship—considered the riskiest side of the business world—not happening.
Action and adventure sports provide an environment perfectly designed for risk rehearsal. All day long, you do nothing but take risks. Make hot decisions. Get immediate feedback about the quality of those hot decisions (make a bad one and you crash). And, eventually, learn to make those heated decisions like they were a whole lot cooler. And, as we know from the neuroscience of plasticity, those hot skills hardwire new neural networks that then cross disciplines—the better we get at making hot decisions coolly in an action sports environment, the better we get at making the in the boardroom.
Now, we are not saying that everyone should lock themselves in the basement with Grand Theft Auto or, like this author, wrap yourself head to toe in body armor and hurl yourself down mountainsides. But, we are saying, finding situations that offer a little risk and provide a lot of immediate feedback—that is feedback that tells you, unequivocally, whether you’re doing it right, right now—can actually let us cool down hot decisions.