Decision or default?

Danger is real. Fear is a choice.” This is the strapline to Will Smith’s film “After Earth“, an advert for which I saw recently on the side of a bus. Without knowing anything about the plot of the film, I want to consider this question: Is fear a choice?

The National Institute Of Mental Health (NIMH) in the US says: “Fear is a feeling of disquiet that begins rapidly in the presence of danger and dissipates quickly once the threat is removed. It is generally adaptive. [It] can be innate or learned. [It] is highly preserved across animal species.” The evolutionary purpose of fear is to drive evasive or defensive behaviours in response to threats such as predators in order to ensure the survival of individuals and therefore species. So to feel fear is an involuntary response to at least some circumstances for all of us.

I surveyed my colleagues to find out if they thought that fear was a choice. This generated a range of answers: most said “no”, while a few said “yes”, and there were also a few “it depends”. Most respondents provided an explanation for their answer and the following responses were typical:


These comments highlight the fact that humans have intellectual capabilities which set us apart from most or all animals.   Humans are self-aware; that is, we are able to contemplate our own thoughts and emotions; we are able to think about thinking. And we are able to make choices and act based on our consideration of our own thoughts and emotions.

In his best selling book “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People“, Stephen Covey calls this capability “the freedom to choose” and he states that: “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose. / Our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions.” In other words, if we’re considering fear, then between a threatening situation which causes us to feel fear and the response that we make to that situation, we are able to think about and to decide how to react.

But how often do we use this capability, the freedom to choose? In every situation? In most? Only sometimes? Think about your own life and work; how often do you make a conscious, considered choice about how to react to a situation and how often do you react without really thinking first? How much of what we do is either instinct or habit?

Stephen Covey in “The Seven Habits…” again: “Because we are, by nature, proactive, if our lives are a function of conditioning and conditions, it is because we have, by conscious decision or by default, chosen to empower those things to control us.

In my work as a coach, people often say to me “I’m so stressed“, by which I believe they are really saying: “I am making myself to be stressed in response to the many things that I have to do, because, by default, I have not taken the time to consider a different, more appropriate response.”  The coaching conversations that follow such statements are therefore usually focused on helping the client to see that they have a choice about how they respond to the many things that they have to do. They have a choice about how they feel about the many things that need to be done and they have a choice about what action to take.

How often do we empower ourselves to choose consciously, and how often do we react by default, without thinking?

The ELECTIA approach to support decision making is intended for people and organisations that want to make better decisions or choices. A necessary first step in making a better choice is to empower yourself to make a conscious choice, to make yourself a decision-maker.


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