Decision Brownouts

In thinking about decision-making under stress, most people focus on fight-or-flight responses. Both fighting and fleeing are obvious courses of action that inherit a clear sense of direction from the characteristics of the threat itself, and are energized by the automatic mobilization of emergency reserves by an acute hormonal response. It’s barely even a decision, since you’re likely to pick one or the other very quickly and intuitively.

But the most difficult modern decisions are marked by the lack of a legible threat (the opposite of a “clear and present danger”), and a slow build-up of a maladaptive chronic stress response. As Robert Sapolsky argued, this is why zebras don’t get ulcers but humans do. Our default impulse is neither to fight or flee — there is no clear adversary to fight or flee from — but the under-theorized third F: freeze.

To freeze due to a sense of an acute stressor is to go into hypervigilance and scanning mode. You think there’s a lion but you can’t tell which direction it might come from. This is not what I’m talking about.

Under chronic stress there is no lion. The threat is really your own compounding inaction and lack of imagination and creativity to break out of it. You sense vaguely that you should make a change in your work, family, or creative life. You sense energy slowly draining away. There’s a slowly ticking countdown clock at the edge of your awareness. You’re losing life traction. Maybe you’ve even tried some half-hearted and ennervated experiments to shake things up but they didn’t work — you fucked around but found out nothing.

So you slip into a low-vigilance, non-scanning freeze mode. One where the only thing you do is conserve energy, which just leads to a downward spiral of progressively falling energy levels, like in a strategically lost company that is trying to cost-cut its way back to a decisive vigor. There is no impetus or acute threat to do anything in particular, and no cue to pick a direction. Most importantly: No energy source has been unlocked. Decisiveness is not about making clear choices as much as it’s about unlocking energy. Indecisiveness is enervation.

I think of this state as a decision brownout, as in an electronic device shutting down, getting unreliable, or slipping into a failed reboot loop, due to insufficient or unstable supply voltage. While you’re in a brownout, you procrastinate on all decisions to conserve energy because you have no sense of what’s important. The mail piles up, the hallway gets cluttered with boxes, you defer obvious purchases and repairs, you stop taking vacations or breaks, or even doing anything fun on a small scale. You pull clothes to wear straight from the dryer, or from a pile on the floor, and throw used clothes directly into the washer or on the floor, like in the famous laundry xkcd. You stop fighting entropy beyond the bare minimum, letting your life gradually enshittify. There is no goal to optimize around, so any high-energy, low-entropy state of preparedness seems pointless. You pick the path of least resistance every time. Your OODA loop has collapsed, like a deflated tire, and needs reinflation.

To get out of a brownout you need two things: a new sense of direction, and the energy to pick a path of greater-than-least resistance. Of the two, the energy is the more important thing. A non-default decision option will feel right primarily because it feels energizing enough to make at all, not because of its external effects. And if you make enough non-minimum-energy decisions in a row, the chances of locking on to a new direction increase (but there is no guarantee). The goal is not a particular new vector but a positive-feedback energization spiral. When you want to push-start a car with a dead battery, the correct direction to push is “downhill.” Once the energy is flowing, you can worry about steering.

Another physics metaphor. You’ve probably heard the heuristic that in driving you should accelerate through a turn. You brake before the turn to decelerate to just below the right speed for the turn, then accelerate through. This is because the turn requires extra traction force, generated by the acceleration. If you do the braking, but not the subsequent acceleration, it’s a bit like a brownout. You lose traction. Except with a general decision brownout, there isn’t even a road curving in a clear direction forcing your hand. You just drift around on a featureless 2d parking lot for the brain.

I think one reason I’m so interested in decision-making is that I’ve been prone to decision brownouts all my life (I’ve spent maybe a third of my days browned-out), which I think of as being a “low-energy” person. This is not quite accurate. I’m capable of sustained periods of high energy activity. I just don’t get motivated by the sorts of clearly defined activity where a reliable “voltage supply” is trivial to find. It’s probably a mix of literal energy patterns, personality, and having the most aptitude for uncertain, ambiguous, exploratory activities in domains without reliable power outlets.

I think I’ve made my peace with this, but it never gets easier. Almost by definition there is no formulaic way to exit a brownout. If there were, you wouldn’t be in a brownout-prone decision regime. All you can do is cultivate patience, and learn to endure long periods on subsistence levels of psyche energy. I suspect many people incorrectly pathologize this life pattern as bipolar disorder or other conditions, rather than attributing it to the decision environment you’ve become adapted to. Roving on Mars, reliant on solar power and vulnerable to dust on the panels, is simply a different state than being on Earth with reliable grid-power outlets around you all the time.

But it’s not just me. Lately it seems most of the world, at all levels of organization and abstraction, is in decision brownout mode. I used another metaphor for this earlier: a world becalmed as in sailing, lacking worldwinds. I think that metaphor is essentially the same, but I like brownouts better for thinking about decision freezes.

The prospect of picking a presidential candidate to vote for, for instance, is brownout-inducing. Both candidates are deeply de-energizing to even think about. The competition is not between Biden and Trump. It’s between the least-resistance path of just not voting and even thinking about it. In this case it’s not me, or any individual bipolar tendencies. It’s the nature of the decision and the energy environment available to navigate it.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Brilliant metaphor, I find myself currently in one of those brownouts, which in my case come also accompanied by a sense of anguish and worthlessness. I think there is also possibly a metaphor of the muscle, the less you make decisions, the more your decision making muscles atrophy. I look back when I was younger and I realized I was much more decisive than I am now, when my whole life i thought it would be the opposite, with more experience and what not. Thanks for the comments about energy I will try to apply them!

  2. I refer to this phenomena as “drift”. It’s the opposite of flow. Winds just push us around when we’re in that state.

    I think the internet and social media have intensified this. They offer a fire-hose of new information, but they go nowhere and lead to nothing. In the worst case, they consume time and energy and leave us worse off than ever.

  3. Wow! I know 3 hoarders and this describes them perfectly. I know several other people who could be expected to hit this spiral, but manage to stay active and engaged. Hopefully, I spend more time in the second category.

  4. Ramkumar Eswaran says

    Grateful to have 3rd F in my lexicon. I could see this everywhere, from my organization to the country I live in. Individuals, Organizations, and Governments are frozen to progress towards any decision from their available choices.

    To a degree, I think, this decision making freeze is because of unknown complexities these entities created due to their operation in digital world. With the speed of information mind numbing Biden between Gaza children or Zionism.

    Lack of expert or expertise with these entities to navigate the available choices at any point of time is the key reason for this frozen state.

    Digitalization is mainly to keep the civilization little more alive, but the power of digitalization on our powerless souls might not creat ice age.

    Your articles and books are opening me up into a new dimensional thinking, which I feel is vital for all the 3 powerless entities (mnetioned above)

  5. This seems like an accurate, useful and novel way to view my current state, thank you for articulating it. From my perspective, the fact that the whole world seems to be caught in this state is indicative that it doesn’t stem from a personal propensity to fall into brownouts, but that something about the paradigm under which we’re living causes decisional brownouts on both sides of the privilege spectrum. Those who are too comfortable (too many options, no impetus to choose) vs those who are existentially precarious (no ability to choose because they have no options).

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