It was fascinating to observe the way the debates in the EU referendum unfolded and how people were making decisions about which way to vote. In the end it was almost impossible to differentiate fact from fiction on both sides.  Sadly (in my opinion) that meant that many people voted purely on emotion and not just any emotion, but deep feelings that had been triggered by primary threats to survival.  

Being SCARFed

An easy way to remember the five Primary Threats that trigger a ‘fight or flight’ reaction is the mnemonic SCARF. This stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.  When any of these get triggered our Limbic system gets activated and we get a surge of neurochemicals that some scientists say reduce our intelligence due to the way they make us narrow our attention onto specific details, neglect the bigger picture and become overwhelmed with feelings that often go back to our early childhood.  When we are triggered by two or more of the Primary Threats you could call it being ‘SCARFed’! 

From the way the referendum went, it was clear to see that large sections of society in the UK were led to believe that their status and autonomy is being diminished by the European Union, that building welcoming relationships with foreigners is dangerous because they’ll take our jobs and that experts were being terribly unfair when they raised alarms about the UK going out on its own.  I was concerned that this potent cocktail of primary threats was being whipped up to such a degree that people would be willing to sacrifice certainty and throw it out the window, but I was still shocked when they actually did it. 

Thinking Fast and Slow

According to the neuroscientists and the excellent research done by Daniel Kahneman there are two fundamental modes of thinking.  Thinking ‘Fast’ and thinking ‘Slow’.  It is far easier to think fast than to put the effort into thinking slow.  

Thinking fast is mainly unconscious, automatic, rapid, associative and stereotypical.  It is highly influenced by bias and has no relationship to intelligence.  On the other hand, thinking slow takes a lot of effort because it is very conscious, deliberate, controlled and analytical.  It is egalitarian because biases are objectively scrutinised and it can be related to intelligence.  

We all use both modes in a variety of contexts from shopping and choosing a menu item to choosing a partner or casting our vote.  There is wisdom in knowing which mode you are using to make your decisions.  If it is all unconscious you may be making a decision based on a false premise or lacking consideration of the emotional consequences.  

Fast thinking scans memories and feelings for quick and simple answers.  If I’ve been reading my favourite newspaper about all the immigrants taking jobs and undercutting my wages, or that £350 million is being given to the EU every week (which is even more than a footballer earns!) then when I’m asked if I want to leave the EU and I hear that it will stop immigration and squandering all that money, I don’t need to think very hard about it.  The answer is clear. 

Thinking slow is more challenging.  There are often complex implications and variables to take into consideration.  Each of these requires even more thinking and it is very easy to get bogged down or lost in the details if you are in this mode.  However, when things are confused by lots of conflicting messages the brain can simply give up and resort to the easier fast process. 

We all have the same human brains and the same thinking processes, so both sides of the EU debate were affected by the struggle to make sense of the referendum rhetoric.  However, we all have different values and feelings based on all the threats and rewards we experience throughout our lives, especially the ones from early childhood.  This brings us back to the SCARF model of Primary Threats and how much we are triggered by feelings of a lack of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.  According to research a perceived threat is five times stronger than a perceived reward.  So in the end it looks like more people were SCARFed into rejecting the UK’s relationship with the EU than seeing the benefits of it.  Now many other people are SCARFed by the massive uncertainty that lies ahead, sadly this includes investors and many business leaders who need to reassess their options while the politicians scrabble for power and the unenviable job of negotiating new deals for the UK. 

Gut Feelers and Rationalisers

When I attended the course on Applied Neuroscience last year one of the modules was on decision making and it is a very complex process that activates numerous parts of the brain.  Rather than going into the details of which parts of the brain are utilised, it’s easier to stay with Kahneman’s model of Thinking Fast and Slow.  Professor Riddle, who taught the course I attended, used the terms ‘Gut Feeler’ and ‘Rationaliser’.  Many people have a preference for one or the other and some have a well-developed balance of both (for more on that click here) (*)

Whatever your preference there are many different context that can affect which mode you use and it is useful to step back and ask yourself some key questions before making a decision, especially if it is an important one that has far reaching consequences. 

Tips for making wiser decisions

Throughout the day our brain is constantly comparing all incoming data with our needs, wants and desires, as well as our fears about comfort, safety and survival.  Depending on our levels of stress and optimism our brains will make fewer or more neural connections.  If we are stressed and pessimistic our brains will make fewer neural connections and imagine negative outcomes that are sometimes illogical because accidental connections are made in the brain that have no basis in reality, and yet the brain will perceive them as real.  When we are relaxed and optimistic our brains increase the number of neural connections.  This enables loosely connected yet potentially insightful and creative solutions, ideas and possibilities to come to our conscious awareness.  

Here are some tips for making wiser decisions:

  1. Practice the ability to become more calm and mindful (If you are interested in this click here).
  2. Consider the quality of the questions you ask yourself.
  3. Consider the criteria you use to make comparisons and judgements.  

Here are some good questions to ask yourself if you are a Gut Feeler (Thinking Fast)

  • What is your gut feeling?
  • Is there a risk you are ignoring?
  • Are you emotionally attached to the outcome?
  • What important details are you missing?
  • What does your gut say?

 Here are some good questions to ask yourself if you are a Rationaliser (Thinking Slow)

  • What are the extreme outcomes?
  • Is there a benefit you are ignoring?
  • What are the emotional repercussions?
  • What details are not important?
  • What is the first step?

 Tips for assessing complex decisions

When you need to make a decision in a highly complex situation it is useful to ask some additional questoins.  For example:

  • What is your attitude to Risk? (*)  Are you risk-adverse or are you willing to face an unpredictable outcome and know you can manage it whichever way it turns out?
  • What is your level of tolerance for Ambiguity?  Can you handle the vagueness and uncertainty in a given outcome even when the risk cannot be evaluated?
  • What is your level of ignorance in this situation?  Is there critical information missing?  What do you need to do to get it?

Maintaining optimism

The outcome of the EU referendum is a poignant example of the VUCA world we now live in.  The Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity created by the Brexit vote will have far reaching consequences for all of us and we now need to overcome our differences and work hard to make the new reality work for the good of all.

The antidote to VUCA is about moving from Volatility to Vision, from Uncertainty to Understanding, from Complexity to Clarity and from Ambiguity to Agility. This means exercising leadership in every aspect of our lives and exercising leadership means making wise decisions. 

I believe that we are fundamentally creative creatures and as long as we can stay mindful and ask the right questions we will be able to build new relationships and overcome the obstacles that get thrown in our path and create a fairer, more inclusive and better society for us all. 

If you are interested in exploring some very exciting and insightful tools and techniques for succeeding in the current environment just contact Amanda at and ask for a no-obligation call to explore your issues and see how we can help you achieve even more success in the coming days, months and years. 

Remember, especially when you make decisions . . . Stay Curious! 

With best regards

David Klaasen 

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