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One of the very best places to study human decision-making processes is in the sports field. Decisions in such arenas are very complex. Every player has to take into consideration multiple dynamic factors before taking a quick decision. On-field calls in competitive sport are taken under conditions of extremely high physical and emotional stress. The consequences of those decisions are large. Years of preparation could get undone within a matter of a few seconds.

John McCrone’s book, Going Inside: A Tour Round a Single Moment of Consciousness, has captured the decision-making process in the brain of a sports person. The book details a study done by Dr. Peter McLeod, a researcher at the Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge University. Dr. McLeod studied what happens in the brain of a cricket batsman as he plays a shot. When a fast bowler sends down a delivery at 145 kilometres per hour, the ball reaches the batsman in 440 milliseconds. After the image of the ball leaving the bowler’s hand has fallen on the batsman’s retina, the brain takes a minimum of 200 milliseconds to predict the trajectory and other factors of the delivery. After that, even the best of batsmen will take a minimum of 150 to 200 milliseconds to swing their bat and achieve contact with the ball at the centre of it. This means that the time available for a batsman to take the crucial decision of what shot is ideal to play is in the range of thousandths of a second.

This in-depth analysis of playing a cricket shot reminds us about another significant feature of the human decision-making process. As the brain takes 200 milliseconds to process the image of a ball in the bowler’s hand, the ball would have travelled half way across the pitch by then. So what the batsman’s brain is actually processing on the basis of that image of a ball in the bowler’s hand, together with various other playing factors, is a predictive distribution of the various possible ways in which the ball will pitch and behave.

The brain assigns probabilities to each of those possibilities. So the batsman begins with a broad hierarchy of likelihoods, but finally predicts a particular delivery and then decides the best shot to deal with it. McCrone describes this as the “dynamically tapering cone of anticipations" mechanism of the brain. The human mind takes most decisions by anticipating the future.

As compared to games involving fast-moving balls, sprinters have some of the easier decisions to make in competitive sports. Their goal is singular and there are no variables they need to take into consideration. As soon as they hear the starting shot, they only need to get off the blocks and run at the fastest possible speed. The sprint race provides us an understanding of the minimum time our brain takes to take a straight-forward, conscious decision.

For a human brain to sense or register an audio stimulus and respond to it at a conscious level, it needs a minimum of 120 milliseconds.

So, in international competitions, pressure sensors embedded in foot blocks record any movement under 120 milliseconds of the crack of a starter’s pistol to notify a false start. This is a reminder that snap decisions like those involved in playing a cricket shot taken within thousandths of a second happen at thresholds below the conscious levels of the brain.

When the coach of a basketball team that’s trailing by two points calls for a time-out with just two seconds of play left, he knows very well that a lot can be done in those two seconds. He scripts out every millisecond of the remaining play time. What move must each of the five players make in those two seconds? Who will get the ball to attempt a match-winning three-point shot? If he is not able to receive the ball, which alternative player should take that all-important shot at the basket? What should be done to counter the defence strategies of the opponent team?

The field of sports has broken down every micro-moment of the action and captured every decision taken within split seconds. This information is used to develop game-winning strategies. The disciplines of big-data analytics and neuroscience have contributed immensely to these new developments.

Even the world of business and policymaking could gain a lot by developing an in-depth understanding of the final few moments of some decisions.

What happens in the consumer’s mind, for example, as she walks down the aisle of a supermarket? Are these the same processes that occur in her brain while she is buying something on an e-commerce platform seated in the comfort of her home? Answers to these and other questions about the final seconds before a purchase will surely strengthen a marketer’s hands.

The understanding that in the final seconds of trespassing across a railway track, the human brain tends to underestimate the incoming speed of a large object by 40% gave us a special grasp of the trespassing problem. The knowledge that the anticipatory faculties of the brain can be used to design more effective road signage helped us reduce accidents on Indian roads.

Human behaviour is perhaps the most complex phenomenon in the universe. To unravel this complexity, it makes lot of sense to take learnings from multiple fields of knowledge. Let’s include the sports field to that list.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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