Under Pressure: With Guests Svetlana Savranskaya, Gary Slaughter & Modupe Akinola
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Transcript of the podcast:
Katy Milkman: Imagine you're in a cramped submarine, deep underwater. It's over 100 degrees in the control room and even hotter in the diesel-engine room, and depth charges have been exploding around you for four hours. Then imagine you're faced with a life-or-death decision, not just for you, but for the entire world. Can you make the right call? In this episode, we look at how people make decisions under pressure and how stress affects judgment at work, at home, or in the fog of war.
I'm Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It's a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving life-changing moments, and then we explore how they relate to the latest research in behavioral science. We do it all to help you make better judgements and avoid costly mistakes.
Svetlana Savranskaya: It's not that the intentional strikes were the danger. I think the unintentional, the reaction to unforeseen events, accidental nuclear exchange could have led to a nuclear war.
Katy Milkman: That's Svetlana Savranskaya. She's the head of Russian programs at the U.S. National Security Archive. She's talking about the year 1962. American spy planes had just discovered Soviet missiles being deployed in Cuba only 90 nautical miles from the continental U.S. It was a major escalation in the Cold War, and tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were extremely high. The Americans established a quarantine—a blockade, really—to prevent Soviet ships from traveling to Cuba. Thousands of miles away, the Soviets were preparing their own mission, a small fleet of diesel-powered submarines were en route to the Sargasso Sea off the coast of Florida.
Svetlana Savranskaya: Their mission was not to attack anybody, to protect anybody. Their mission was to get to Cuba and dock at Mariel to become part of the Soviet group of forces. So their mission did not include any envisioned interaction with the U.S. ships.
Katy Milkman: Svetlana spent years interviewing Russian submariners who patrolled the world's oceans for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The submarine officers in this particular mission were committed to absolute secrecy. No one could know about it, especially the Americans.
Svetlana Savranskaya: Their priority, and their naval honor depended on not being detected, and that was repeated to them many times in the briefings and in written orders, that the entire transit had to be completely secret, that they had to use every possible means available to them to avoid detection and avoid being surfaced.
Katy Milkman: One of the submarines, B59, was captained by Valentin Savitsky. He had a bit of a reputation.
Svetlana Savranskaya: Savitsky, he was seen as an emotional person. The other submariners with whom I talked, they said, "Well, he was easily provoked. He would get mad at people. He was emotional." They wouldn't say he was unstable, but a lot of people referred to him as short tempered.
Katy Milkman: But Savitsky was not leading the submarine alone. He was accompanied by the chief of staff of the brigade, a man by the name of Vasili Arkhipov.
Svetlana Savranskaya: Arkhipov was seen as a very different type of person. He was calm, very calm, a little strict, but people referred to him as wise. He was a good presence on the boat. He was not a commanding officer in any way, but he had the authority. So you have a situation where the formal command is certainly in the hand of the commander of the boat, Savitsky. And the authority, Arkhipov had moral authority, and people respected him. So that's the two characters that we have, and they're going to Cuba on this very, very dangerous mission.
Katy Milkman: It was the dangerous because the Americans would be hunting for any sign of Soviet submarines in the area near Cuba. Americans like Gary Slaughter.
Gary Slaughter: This was at the height of the Cold War, and so we were very wary of the Soviet Union and did our best to be prepared to have conflicts with them, whether they be minor or major. We were armed to be able to sink their ships. We had the weaponry to do so. We were equipped with depth charges, for example, that would blow up and crush the hull of a Russian submarine.
Katy Milkman: Gary Slaughter is a Navy veteran. He was just 23 years old in 1962. He was part of the crew aboard an American destroyer that was tasked with preventing Soviet forces from crossing the quarantine line into Cuba.
Gary Slaughter: I was commissioned as a naval officer and assigned to the USS Cony, an anti-submarine Navy destroyer, where I served as communications officer and as an officer of the deck for anti-submarine operations. The Cony was a streamline ship of about 400 feet in length and 30 feet in breadth. We had a crew of about 400 officers and men, and we were equipped with three-inch and five-inch artillery cannons to destroy both sea and land targets. And we were also armed with depth charges and torpedoes to attack enemy submarines and also surface ships if we came into conflict.
Katy Milkman: Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Soviet submarines were already on their way. October 27th, 1962, started like any other day for Gary and the rest of the crew onboard the USS Cony.
Gary Slaughter: The weather was clear and warm, and our morale was high because we had just completed a successful three weeks of comprehensive training after a shipyard overhaul.
Katy Milkman: But underwater, not too far away, the situation was very different. Life in a submarine is much harder than life aboard a destroyer.
Svetlana Savranskaya: It's really awful. It is. The spaces are so tiny, so, so small, cramped. Even in normal conditions, it is very uncomfortable, very stuffy. And these submarines, as they discovered during their journey, were not equipped to be in the Southern waters and very hot temperatures. They were fine in the Norwegian Sea and Bering Sea, but suddenly they were sent to Sargasso Sea.
Katy Milkman: Temperatures in the submarines reached dangerous levels in these tropical waters. It made life aboard these subs miserable.
Svetlana Savranskaya: The temperatures went up to 113 Fahrenheit, right, and that's in the living quarters. In the engine sections of the submarine, they went up to as high as 150 Fahrenheit, and people had heat strokes. It's just hard to imagine how people continued to function.
As one of the sailors noted in his diaries, people were falling like flies, meaning they just would collapse from exhaustion and heat and lack of water. And that was the other thing, they did not have air conditioning. They did not have long-term refrigeration. They did not have water cooling system, and their reserves of fresh water were depleted very quickly. They could only have, at the time when they got to Sargasso Sea, they were given 250 grams of water per day. So it's a little more than a cup per day. The conditions were extremely stressful.
Katy Milkman: On top of these very trying conditions, Savitsky and Arkhipov received very little information from Moscow while at sea.
Svetlana Savranskaya: Essentially, they were kept in the dark. What all the commanders mentioned, kind of laughingly, is that they got all the news about the harvest and none of the news of what actually was going on and the response that the Americans were preparing.
Katy Milkman: Then, things got even worse. The American ships were closing in on submarine B59, and Savitsky and Arkhipov were not able to surface without giving away their position, and they were stuck in this limbo for several days.
Svetlana Savranskaya: They did not have any real information because they were underwater. They could only intercept when they were above the water with antennas up and intercept equipment working. They were not able to surface because they were trying to avoid detection, so they were expecting the worst.
Katy Milkman: The American ships spotted the submarine. Sonar information indicated that it was headed toward Cuba and the quarantine line.
Gary Slaughter: The first thing that happened was that we got a sonar contact that we determined was a Russian submarine. If it were of an American submarine, they would've come to the surface and acknowledged us and been friendly, but the Russian was trying to evade and avoid us. We were highly equipped to be able to contact the submarine and to sink it if we needed to. We were prepared to use actual depth charges, but we didn't send the highly explosive depth charges down because we wanted to surface the submarine.
Katy Milkman: Instead, Gary and his crew dropped non-destructive practice depth charges to intimidate the Russians.
Gary Slaughter: We didn't want to destroy the submarine. We wanted to surface it. Practice depth charges were like large firecrackers. They were threatening because when they exploded on the hollow of the ship, of the submarine that is, they sounded like they were being shot at so to speak.
Katy Milkman: The Americans continued this onslaught for four hours. Still, submarine B59 refused to surface.
Gary Slaughter: We were amazed at how long they lasted because I don't know that I could have done that. When those sound waves are hitting the submarine's surface are just very, very annoying to say the least, so there's a sort of a psychological warfare component to that. You want to drive them crazy.
Katy Milkman: Gary knew it was a dangerous situation for everyone involved.
Gary Slaughter: It was tense because they could have pointed their torpedo tubes at us and shot us, and it could have sunk us. There was a lot of pressure on us Naval officers during the Cold War. We were well trained at stay calm and cool and collected at all times, but the stakes were high including the possibility of a nuclear exchange, so we had to be very careful with what we did.
Katy Milkman: Remember this tense moment is happening at the very height of the Cold War. Here's Svetlana Savranskaya again.
Svetlana Savranskaya: So in this cat-and-mouse game where emotions are very hot and stakes are very hot, I think even a strike by a regular torpedo would've led to escalation. So if he used a regular torpedo, and most likely he would not use just one torpedo, and he destroyed a couple of U.S. ships, the United States would have to respond.
Katy Milkman: By this point, the conditions inside the submarine had become unbearable. The batteries were spent, and the Russian crew had few options left.
Svetlana Savranskaya: So under this immense pressure from American anti-submarine warfare, Captain Savitsky gives an order to surface.
Gary Slaughter: The Russians were not a weak foe. They were very strong, they were very well trained, and they were a very dangerous opponent. We treated them with the greatest respect because at any minute, they could have shot their torpedoes and sunk us, and they chose not to do so, so we were quite relieved.
Katy Milkman: To the Americans, it seemed that the worst of the danger had passed. They had won the day, and the Soviet submarine was beginning to appear at the water surface. But inside the submarine, it was a very different atmosphere.
Svetlana Savranskaya: You have such intense moment of confrontation, kind of a sense of victory on the part of the American anti-submarine forces and the sense of humiliation on the part of the Soviets about being discovered, about being brought to the surface, but even more humiliating, they had no other choice because their equipment was not functioning.
Katy Milkman: Savitsky and Arkhipov had received two directives when they set out from Russia. One, we already told you about, avoid being surfaced by the Americans. They had failed. The second directive only became public in recent years.
Svetlana Savranskaya: If you are attacked, if it's a war situation, you are attacked, then you use your nuclear weapon.
Katy Milkman: Use your nuclear weapon.
Svetlana Savranskaya: Nobody had the idea that these submarines that were diesel submarines would carry nuclear torpedoes.
Katy Milkman: Savitsky and Arkhipov had the option of not only regular torpedoes, but nuclear torpedoes.
Svetlana Savranskaya: So the submarine is on the surface, and Savitsky himself, chief of staff of the brigade, Vasili Arkhipov, and the signaling officer, they went up on the bridge, they were in full uniform, so it was kind of a very solemn occasion. They went up on the bridge to signal to the Americans to leave them alone and to stop these actions, but as they're coming up, they don't know if the war already started because they were cut off from communications for the last almost two days. It's dark, people are exhausted, nerves are at the limit, and as Savitsky goes up on the bridge, it's blinding light, he hears helicopters, and he thinks they're under attack.
Gary Slaughter: After the submarine surfaced, we had a patrol aircraft, called a P2V, fly overhead at a very low altitude and zoom the submarine. This airplane swooped out of the sky and had a very large, four-engine airplane and filled with depth charges and all kinds of things to sink submarines, and it scared the dickens out of both us and the Russians.
Svetlana Savranskaya: And at that moment, he turns back, and he starts going down into the submarine, and he yells a command. He yells something along the way of, "Arm the torpedoes. We will take them down."
Gary Slaughter: They immediately turned their submarine toward us and pointed their torpedo tubes at the Cony. Well, they were only about a hundred yards away, so it was a dreadfully tense situation.
Katy Milkman: Inside the submarine, there's a lot of commotion.
Svetlana Savranskaya: Savitsky is giving the command as he is trying to get down, but in the stairwell, there is the signaling officer with a lot of equipment that he's carrying, and he got stuck in the stairwell. Arkhipov was more calm and by pure accident, he was still standing on the conning tower when Savitsky was trying to get down, and so he had this extra minute maybe to observe the behavior of the U.S. anti-submarine warfare units, and he realized that as offensive as their behavior was, they were not trying to shoot. And he essentially reached down for Savitsky and said, "Wait, wait. Look, they're signaling. They're signaling." And Savitsky came back, and he gave the order to signal back to the Americans to stop these provocative actions.
Katy Milkman: Savitsky and Arkhipov made their decision. They would not fire their conventional torpedoes on the Americans, nor would they arm their nuclear weapons.
Gary Slaughter: If they fired the torpedo, and it struck the Cony or any other ship, it would explode like an atomic bomb. We would've been turned to dust.
Svetlana Savranskaya: They came very close to unintentionally blowing up the world.
Katy Milkman: Instead, Captain Savitsky walked back up to the submarine deck to communicate with the Americans.
Gary Slaughter: He wasn't amused by our antics. He had a grouchy look, so we didn't have a very friendly interaction. Let's put it that way. I didn't blame him.
Svetlana Savranskaya: That doesn't seem like it was an intention of either in the Soviet side or the American side to have that confrontation. But think about it, just the danger of it, right? If Arkhipov did not have that extra moment standing there in the conning tower and looking at the Americans, or maybe if he didn't have the kind of nerves of steel that he had, we don't know.
Katy Milkman: The right choice might seem obvious in hindsight, but at the moment, the situation was not clear to anyone involved, especially Captain Savitsky. Fortunately for all of us, Vasili Arkhipov was the sober second thought to Valentin Savitsky's instinct to retaliate. For the next few hours, the USS Cony and the Soviet submarine B59 traveled next to each other on the surface while the submarine crew made repairs to their vessel.
Gary Slaughter: We asked if we could do anything for them. And they said, "How about high-lining us some bread and cigarettes?" We high-lined them some bread and cigarettes, and that pleased them very much. It was a good diplomatic act. Savitsky came to the bridge, and he looked over, and he saw me, I guess he knew it was me because I'd been with him for hours that day, and he smiled at me for the first time. And I thought, "Boy, that's an accomplishment."
Katy Milkman: Savitsky then walked back down those stairs and into the submarine. B59 and her crew submerged and turned toward the Soviet Union to start their journey home. Svetlana Savranskaya is director of Russian programs at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Gary Slaughter served as a communications officer on the USS Cony during the Cuban Missile Crisis and is the author of Sea Stories: A Memoir of a Naval Officer. I have links in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a close call in many ways, and the stakes couldn't have been higher. This particular confrontation between a Soviet submarine and an American destroyer is notable not only because it could have led to nuclear war, but also because it illustrates how stress can impact our perceptions and our judgment.
The crew of submarine B59 was subjected to punishing conditions and a lack of information that could have easily resulted in serious consequences. The constant barrage of depth charges, the intense heat, and the lack of water all made decision-making extremely difficult. Heat, for instance, makes us quicker to act in anger, and even after the captain was forced to surface the submarine, his misunderstanding about the intentions of a U.S. aircraft nearly sparked a global catastrophe. Savitsky reacted to the stressful situation in anger and chose to take an enormous risk.
Most of us will never experience this kind of extreme pressure. Typically, the kinds of decisions we face on a day-to-day basis don't compare to the excruciating choices the Cuban Missile Crisis foisted on members of the armed forces, but we can all relate to situations where stress completely hijacks our judgment. Maybe it's an important speech or musical performance, maybe it's happened when you were on a tight deadline, or you had an important job interview. My next guest is an expert in stress and decision-making. Modupe Akinola is an associate professor at Columbia Business School and host of the TED Business podcast.
Hi, Modupe. Thank you so much for joining me.
Modupe Akinola: Hi, Katy. It is such a pleasure to be here.
Katy Milkman: I really want to ask you about one of your favorite research topics, I know, which is stress. And I was hoping you could start by telling us about some of the ways that stress affects our judgments and decisions.
Modupe Akinola: So ultimately stress is a way of preparing us to act. If you think about it, our stress system is intended to prepare us to act, specifically to run away from threatening things. It's an antiquated system. You see a scary thing that might be able to kill you, and you want to run away. You want to have the energy to run away. You have so much that you need in your body. But what happens is that you're so attentive to the threat that it can hijack your mind, and so ultimately stress can reduce our ability to remember things and increase our desire to run away and to take risks because we want to avoid that life-threatening situation. And now I said it's antiquated. We had that reaction to life-threatening things, but nowadays it can feel life-threatening when you're not prepared for a presentation, when the stock market crashes, when you have a test that's coming up. So our stress system is not adapting the way it could.
Katy Milkman: And so it leads us to make these decisions that involve excessive risk taking or forgetting and laser focus that actually are harmful.
Modupe Akinola: Yes. Your focus is on, "Is this going to harm me?" Instead of thinking about, "Oh wait, what is the situation I'm dealing with? What do I have to overcome this situation?" So you're more concerned about the negative and the loss of things than you are about the upsides, and so that's one of the challenges in terms of stress.
Katy Milkman: And I know you've studied the physiology of stress as well, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about why this happens, what's going on that leads it to cloud our judgment in these ways?
Modupe Akinola: Yes. So as I mentioned earlier, your stress system is based on your body preparing to act. And what does your body need? It needs energy. It needs cortisol. It needs adrenaline. It needs these hormones that course through your system when you are experiencing something that's demanding. But the problem with that is that this threat and your body feeling like, "Oh my gosh, I need what it takes," is heightened. And all other functions that are not necessary are turned off. So you don't need to think about digestion. You don't need to think about reproduction. Instead, your system that says, "Give me the energy to run away. Give me the energy that I need," is activated. And because of those heightened hormones and other functions that can have an implication for our memories. It can have an implication for our other functions like cardiovascular reactivity and things like that.
Katy Milkman: Could you tell me about a favorite research study that shows how stress affects our decisions at work?
Modupe Akinola: So it's funny because a lot of my research, I talk about how we think differently about stress. How do you adopt a mindset about stress that reminds you that it's not always bad? We have all been in situations where we've risen to the occasion under stress, and the dominant message is that "Oh, stress is bad for you." But me and my collaborators are trying to change that.
And so one of my favorite studies highlights that when you have a "stress is enhancing" mindset, in other words, when you realize and you remember that stress can be beneficial for your health, it can be beneficial for your productivity, it can be beneficial for performance. When people have a "stress is enhancing" mindset relative to a "stress is debilitating" mindset, like that stress makes us sick, stress is bad for us, that can lead to positive outcomes like greater creativity. That's one of the benefits of a "stress is enhancing" mindset, like the desire to seek feedback. One of those studies that my collaborator Alia Crum and I ran is one of my favorites because it does show that we don't always have to think about stress in this negative way.
Katy Milkman: How did you get in interested in stress in the first place?
Modupe Akinola: I like to say that I came from a family of stressed-out people. Mom, I love you. You know I do. But as immigrants, my parents came to the states in the late sixties, and there are lots of stressors of being a newcomer to a new country, a new world, and those worries kind of persist. And growing up, I feel like I felt and experienced a lot of that.
I also went to a school that was really, really educationally challenging, so that was a stressful environment. Same thing with college. And when I graduated from college, I was at a consulting firm, which was stressful, constant demands, lots of travel, demanding clients, and I felt like every environment I was in, people seemed stressed. But one thing I realized from my own journey and also from my experience at the consulting firm was that some people would really thrive under that stress and other people would buckle under it. And so I became really interested in trying to understand the conditions under which you can benefit from stress and the conditions under which stress can be debilitating. And so that's what got me interested in this topic. Research is me-search, so some of that, but also watching others really struggle through their stress.
Katy Milkman: Do you have any favorite classic findings from the literature on stress that illustrate ways in which it can be harmful? Because I know your perspective is sort of trying to focus on how to use it as a source of enhancement, but I know our listeners will also be interested in, when can it trip you up? What are the kinds of decisions you might not want to make if you can possibly avoid it under stress?
Modupe Akinola: Yeah. Decisions that relate to taking risk. Because again, stress makes you have tunnel vision, which means that your "System 1" is activated, I know you've talked about that on this podcast, versus "System 2" being able to override through rational thinking. So I think some of it is narrowing your focus, which affects your decision-making negatively.
I've done some work where I found that police officers were more attentive to threats when they were under stress. So you're going to be looking more towards negative things, so intentionally focused towards negative versus positive things. I've also found in some of my work that when you have a "stress is enhancing" mindset, you can actually see more of the happy faces in something versus the sad faces. So these are some ways in which you might make a decision that is actually not the best for you because you're thinking of all the negatives that can arise versus thinking about some of the positives of that, outcomes of that decision.
Katy Milkman: That's really interesting. And for listeners who are new to the show, just so folks know, System 1 is this idea that we have an immediate, intuitive sort of gut reaction to many situations that's not deeply thought out, and that's your System 1. It's one because it comes online first, and System 2 is this more deep processing that we do when we do long algebra or contemplate the costs and benefits of a choice, so it comes on later, and it gives us that more thoughtful, reflective reaction. So really interesting to think about this in that context.
Modupe Akinola: And also to that point, I mentioned earlier this idea that stress can affect your memory. So imagine so many decisions that you have to make are based on recall. Recall of good data, recall of information that could be helpful in the decision, but if your cortisol levels are super high and that is influencing your ability to kind of think through things rationally, then your memory will not be what it needs to be to make the best decision.
Katy Milkman: So for your average listener, what do you think some of the key takeaways should be from all of this research you've just described? What do you think they should do or think about differently?
Modupe Akinola: So one thing is rather than always thinking, "This is going to be a bad thing for me," remembering that your mindset matters. So it's not stress in and of itself that influences the extent to which you have a positive or negative outcome. It is your mindset about stress that can affect the outcome.
And so one of the things I do is teach people how to have a "stress is enhancing" mindset, and you do that by first acknowledging your stress. Often we're like, "Oh no, I'm not stressed. I can't be stressed. No, no, no, no." And you're avoiding it. No, this is the reality of our lives. There are stressful things that are happening, so acknowledge it. Also then welcoming it like, "Well, why am I stressed? And let me think about other situations in my life where I was stressed and a positive outcome ensued." But then also thinking about how you can utilize it. How can you use that kind of tunnel vision and focus in a way that will get you the outcome you desire? So those are a couple of ways that I try to teach people to think about stress. It's not just about being in a Zen state and exercising and all that. Yes, there are ways to reduce your stress, but it's really about saying, "In light of the stress I'm feeling, what resources do I have to overcome it?" And channeling those resources.
Katy Milkman: I love that advice because it feels very positive, and it feels like something we can all actually work with. And I'm curious, it may be that you just take that advice in your own life, but I'm curious what you do differently as a result of spending a couple of decades researching this topic that you didn't do before.
Modupe Akinola: Well, one thing is I really do try to find time to just still my mind. For me, it's in the morning. I will always take time in the morning to just sit and be present so that I have this space to at least figure out, "OK, well, what is stressful for me today? What do I want out of this day?"
We're always rushing from thing to thing that we don't even take a moment to pause. And if we don't take a moment to pause, then we don't know what is really going to affect us in our environment. And so that helps me in acknowledging what I'm stressed out about, what I'm nervous about, and then figuring out what I need. I often ask myself, "Well, what do I need today? Do I need to talk to a friend? Do I need to go for a run? Do I need to take a break? Do I need to go to sleep?" I mean, and we often forget to ask ourselves, "What do we need in this moment?" And I think that is one of the best questions I've learned to ask as a result of doing this research.
Katy Milkman: I love that answer. It also gels really nicely with something I often talk to my students about when I'm teaching them how to make better decisions, which is the idea that you're not always decision ready, that there are some states when if you try to make a high-stakes decision in that state, you are more likely to make a mistake. And if you can be more attuned to what state you're in, when you have the luxury of time or the luxury to pass a decision baton to someone else in your organization, who's in a better state, that can be really valuable.
Modupe Akinola: Oh, I love that also because it reminds me of some of the decision-making we do in my division at Columbia Business School. When we're doing hiring, we have a staged process where we don't make the decision the day that we're having the discussion. We always wait till the next day, the next afternoon, to actually vote because it allows us to say, "OK, well, what was I thinking then." Gives you time to reflect and hopefully helps you make a better decision that next day, and I think that process is one we should think about in many different aspects of our lives.
Katy Milkman: I love that. I think that's a great place to wrap. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Modupe. This was wonderful.
Modupe Akinola: Katy, I love talking to you, so this was wonderful for me, too. Thank you for having me on.
Katy Milkman: Modupe Akinola is an associate professor of management at Columbia Business School and director at the Sanford C. Bernstein and Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics as well host of the TED Business podcast. You can find a link to her paper on optimizing stress in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
As Modupe mentioned, many psychologists find it useful to describe our minds as made up of two different systems, which have been dubbed System 1 and System 2. The two-system model was introduced by Keith Stanovich and Richard West and popularized by Daniel Kahneman in his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow. It points to the idea that when we react to any situation, we often have an initial gut response that isn't well thought out. That's our System 1 response, and it tends to be emotional and poorly reasoned. Given more time to reflect and analyze a situation, a second, more thoughtful and rational System 2 response ideally comes online.
If all goes well, System 2 dominates System 1, but in stressful situations, System 1 is more likely to win out, leading us to make rash decisions. Modupe described research on stress, which tends to enhance our System 1 response, increase our willingness to take risks, and reduce our recall. Obviously, the situation on the Russian submarine that I described earlier was incredibly stressful, but it was also very hot, and there is fascinating work demonstrating that exposure to heat alone impairs our judgment. Multiple studies have shown that on hot days, professional baseball pitchers are more likely to intentionally hit batters with their pitches in retaliation for previous hits of the batter by the opposing team.
Road rage and crime also increase on hot days, and people report generally being crankier when the temperature spikes. Being aware that stress and heat can make you angry, hastier to retaliate, and more willing to take risks is incredibly important. Whether you're under stress at work or at home or extra irritable due to the weather or some other seemingly irrelevant feature of your environment, it can impair your judgment. So please consider taking the advice I offer my Wharton MBA students when making a big decision. Ask yourself whether you're decision-ready before you pull the metaphorical trigger or make a hot-headed choice. Sometimes it's better to wait a day or two until you're in a better state of mind or outsource the decision to someone in a cooler, calmer place. If you don't, you might really regret your actions.
You've been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you've enjoyed the show, we'd be really grateful if you'd leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also follow us for free in your favorite podcasting app. And if you want more of the kinds of insights we bring you on Choiceology about how to improve your decisions, you can order my book, How to Change, or sign up for my monthly newsletter, Milkman Delivers, at katymilkman.com/newsletter. That's it for this season, but there will be new episodes for you in the late summer. Hope you'll join me then. I'm Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.
Speaker 5: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.
After you listen
How might the phenomena explored on Choiceology be impacting your personal finances and portfolio?
- Listen to the Financial Decoder podcast to find out.
How might the phenomena explored on Choiceology be impacting your personal finances and portfolio?
- Listen to the Financial Decoder podcast to find out.
How might the phenomena explored on Choiceology be impacting your personal finances and portfolio?
- Listen to the Financial Decoder podcast to find out.
If you've ever been faced with an important decision when time was scarce, information was incomplete, or tempers were running high, you'll know that it's difficult to make a good choice. Now imagine a decision that has implications for the entire world, and the people facing that decision are 500 feet below the surface of the ocean in a nuclear-armed diesel submarine that is overheating and running out of power.
In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at decisions under pressure and how our thinking process is affected by stress.
We begin in the Sargasso Sea, just off the coast of Florida, in October 1962. It's the height of the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis is bringing the U.S. and the Soviet Union closer to open conflict. John F. Kennedy has ordered a naval "quarantine" around Cuba after the discovery of Soviet missile installations there, and the Soviets have responded by sending a squadron of submarines to the area. Those submarines were ill-equipped for the warm waters around Cuba, and the squadron had little to no contact with Moscow. And they were being hunted by the American navy. It was a recipe for disaster.
Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya tells the story of two of the Russian submariners in the fleet, one who demonstrates the dangers of making decisions under extreme pressure and the other who proves why it's best when cooler heads prevail.
Dr. Savranskaya is director of Russian programs at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
You'll also hear an American perspective on this dangerous military interaction from a man who was there. Gary Slaughter served as a communications officer on the USS Cony during the Cuban Missile Crisis and is the author of Sea Stories: A Memoir of a Naval Officer.
Next, Dr. Modupe Akinola joins Katy to discuss the mechanics of decision-making under stress. You'll hear how your stress system prepares you to act but also suppresses your ability to think clearly. Dr. Akinola offers ideas on how to prepare yourself for decisions and minimize the negative effects of stress in her paper "Thriving Under Pressure."
Modupe Akinola is an associate professor of management at Columbia Business School, director at the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership & Ethics, and host of the TED Business podcast.
Finally, Katy presents useful advice on being decision-ready and avoiding the hot-headed choice.
Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.
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