Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Going with your Gut

Decisions, decisions. You make dozens a day. What girl should I ask to the prom? Should I eat McDonald's or Burger King for lunch? What socks go best with these pants? Do I work as a lifeguard or a waiter this summer? Which broken down used car should I buy? Should I go to college? Which one?

You might be inclined to think that the best decisions are made when you have the most information and the most time to think. That seems commonsensical. But it turns out that's not always true. Studies of how humans make decisions and how successful those decisions are have shown that sometimes the gut reaction, the "feeling" that a decision is right is more accurate than the well-considered, well-researched choice.

Sometimes, that is. Unfortunately you can't just flip the script and go with your gut all the time.
Too bad.

Malcolm Gladwell approaches the question of gut-level decision making in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. In it, Gladwell finds that people often make the right decision before knowing why. Humans seem to have an uncanny ability to process massive amounts of information unconsciously and arrive at conclusions just "knowing" they're right. Consider one experiment Gladwell explains early in Blink. Subjects were given two stacks of cards and a sum of money with which to "gamble." They could pick a card, which would indicate how much money they'd won or lost, from either stack. One stack had big rewards but also big losses and a lot of them. Selecting from that stack would ultimately leave you broke. The other stack had smaller rewards but also smaller and fewer losses. Selecting cards from that stack would ultimately lead you to win. Over time, most subjects figured out the proper strategy and took from the deck which would earn them money. But here's the interesting part: they started using the proper strategy long before they could explain what was going on. And when they did pick from the "bad" deck they showed anxiety (sweaty palms, increased heart rate) before they had any idea what they were nervous about. Each subject's unconscious mind was way ahead of him, guiding his decisions without his awareness.

Gladwell collects a host of such examples, interviewing a man who can predict the success or failure of a marriage based on observing just a few seconds of an interview with the couple. Another fellow who can, with near perfect accuracy, predict whether a professional tennis player's serve will land foul before the player even hits the ball. Gladwell cites a study that shows that people who went with their "gut" when purchasing cars were happier with their purchase in the long run than those who did extensive research. (Paradoxically, people who did research about small purchases, like which can of soup to buy, were happier than those who made snap decisions.)

But making snap decisions is not always the best strategy. Gladwell shows how relying on your unconscious can lead to all sorts of mistakes. Gladwell even subjects himself to some exercises which reveal that he has unconscious racist tendencies, despite the fact that he's half black. Police who make snap decisions based on a suspect's appearance, or the neighborhood he lives in, are prone to arrest the wrong people, or worse, and salesmen can easily lose sales by relying on a gut that says that people who are poorly dressed are broke or those who are women will be uninformed.

So how do you sort out when to rely on your gut and when to ignore it? Well that's a tough one. The important thing, in the end, is to listen to your gut, especially when making big decisions that you can't possibly think all the way through. But don't just blindly obey those feelings. Think about what your gut is telling you. Do you have any reason to think it's wrong? Is it making stupid assumptions? If not, it might have something useful to contribute.

Read Blink if you want more insight into this process. (Also try How We Decide by Jonah Lerner which makes many of the same observations but goes into more detail about the biological processes in the human brain while using more examples from football and poker. Never a bad thing. )

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