When you make a decision, how confident are you that you make it logically?
Most people will say that they make most of their decisions using logic, weighing up the facts and figures and coming up with a reasoned, logical outcome.
However, in reality, our brain is designed to short-circuit logical decision making and make emotional, non-rational decisions. We often call this ‘intuition’ or instinct. These instinctive decisions are critical to survival when there is little time. However, the benefit gained through the speed of response is traded off for accuracy.
An experiment in thinking:
Try these two tasks:
Task one: What comes next? Apple, Orange, Banana ……
Task two: without calculator or paper and pencil, find 23 x 17.
• Which task was easier?
• Which task was faster?
• Which task has a ‘known’ answer, and which one did you create?
• Can you explain why you gave each answer?
• Can you describe to someone HOW you came up with each answer?
These two tasks demonstrate two different types of thinking – intuitive (task one) and logical (task two). Consider your answers to the above questions as these thinking modes are described in the rest of this article.
What is intuition?
Intuition is probably what you used in task one above. Without effort, a thought probably came into your awareness. Most likely, you were aware of the choice before you even realised that you had made it. In a recent workshop when I ran this exercise, more than half the group had their answer before I said “banana”. Their answers included pineapple, pear and breakfast.
What was your answer? Where did your answer come from?
What happened was your brain picked up cues, searched for and detected a pattern, drew down from memory important associations, problem solved and (very rapidly) presented you with an answer. In this case, the cues (apple, orange, banana) may have triggered a pattern match (“fruit”) and the first available (or most emotionally charged) member of that category was drawn from memory, tested and presented as the solution.
Often, the cues detected that feed these patterns are unconscious, and several powerful experiments have demonstrated that people can readily be ‘primed’ with cues that limit or modify what answers they provide (or actions they take) in intuitive thinking tasks. By offering specific cues, we direct the results people come up with. This is one of the reasons group brainstorming fails – the first answer acts to prime the group to limit and direct the thinking of the rest of the group.
Can intuition be a good thing?
Intuitive decision making helps highly experienced people detect cues rapidly from their environments and take known actions. Often, the cues that they detect are not in their conscious awareness, however the sum of signals detected has ‘meaning’ for the individual from which they take rapid action. Sportspeople, surgeons and emergency responders that are highly practiced find they can detect specific signals predictively and take specific actions.
This rapid-response decision making system is based on deep experiential learning and is highly valuable to these individuals.
The problem for everybody else is that they use this system to predict, decide and respond based upon limited, often inappropriate information in times of uncertainty. Without experience and training, people don’t have the ability to detect a predictive pattern of cues from which a skilled response emerges. Instead, they take whatever information is available (including their own knowledge, expectations and beliefs), make a story that fits (pattern matching producing congruity bias) and act according to that story.
Without deeply learned experience, we cannot determine which cues are the important ones, what is ‘predictive’, what the pattern of cues means, or what is the best action that should be taken as a consequence.
Basing decisions on your ‘intuition’ or gut instinct is therefore liable to massive problems unless it is in a domain where you are extraordinarily experienced and skilled.
Is there another option?
In the experiment above, task two took effort and logic. Many people would find this too much hard work, and would not have completed the calculation. Others may not have a process of solving it (try 23×20 = 460, now subtract 3×23 = 69, 460-69 = 391.) How did you go? This was logical thinking (using facts, transcribing them into a known process, evaluating the outcome against criteria).
In that same workshop, over 90% of attendees asked this second question gave up and provided no response at all!. Using logic to come up with a decision takes effort. The law of conservation of energy suggests that we will take the lowest energy path to an outcome. This proves that if we can come up with a ‘pretty good’ decision most of the time without expending much energy (intuitive thinking), the human system will take it.
Logical thinking in uncertainty takes time, effort and requires thinking frameworks. After doing these two tasks, it is easy to see why we instinctively have a preference for intuitive thinking over logical. It is simpler, faster and takes less effort. Logical thinking can be frustrating in uncertainty, because after all of the effort, a definitive conclusion may not be possible. It is no wonder a thinking process that is fast, decisive and allows action in the face of uncertainty is often employed instead. In the place of limited information and uncertainty (no fixed answer), people create answers intuitively, and feel certain that they are right.
Welcome to intuitive thinking – however intuitive or instinctive decision making is full of biases and errors. These intuitive thinking errors are what get people into trouble, and can be used to shape the way people think, rather than allowing them to fully and logically process a decision.
Knowing how these instinctive processes and their errors influence your thinking is critical in three ways:
• It helps you intervene to improve the quality of your own decision making
• It helps you avoid being lured into biased decision making by skilled communicators, and
• It helps you structure communication to utilise the heuristics (short cuts) and biases of the intuitive decision making system to enhance your communication outcomes.
The key intuitive errors that we all make:
Availability heuristic: To make an intuitive decision, we use only the facts that are currently available. This includes external cues, as well as our internal knowledge, beliefs and expectations. We do not search for more information, and we are readily influenced by unconscious priming cues.
Intensity heuristic: If we have an intense emotional response to something, it is given far more weight in our thinking. This happens both to internal cues (bad memories, for example, or fears) and external signals, as well as our response to the ‘answer’ that we create. The quality of our thinking often requires us to set aside the ‘intensity’ element to come up with a considered answer, but our intuitive system does not operate in this way.
Substitution: Due to the rule of conservation of effort, we will answer an easier question and substitute the answer into the harder question. For example “how safe is it for me to walk across the carpark?” is a question that requires effort to answer, particularly in uncertainty. However “how bad would it be if something happened?” is an easier question. If the response is “intense/bad”, this is substituted into the harder question, and the answer to the carpark question is “it is intensely dangerous”. This in one of the biggest impacts on quality decision making – we answer the wrong questions.
Causality: The brain loves a story. If it can find a pattern, particularly where it can establish a cause-effect pairing of information, it prefers this to uncertainty. This is also known as congruity bias and is the basis of all conspiracy theories. The idea of things happening randomly, or for no reason, is disliked by our brain which seeks order and understanding.
Abstraction bias: The brain cannot understand abstractions. What is 79%? Picture 132 rabbits? When something is abstract, we cannot properly process it. However, by making things concrete through stories, examples and ratios (imagine 8 of every 10, or 11 groups of 12 rabbits) allows people to more rapidly grab an idea. Big numbers, percentages and abstract concepts are a turn off for the brain (and take too much effort).
Hindsight bias: Once something happens, humans are great at looking back and finding a reason or a meaning for it. This transfers into predictions, where good predictions are given reasons, and bad predictions are ignored or justified. Think about the daily stock market report – every expert can give a reason why certain things happen. Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter, if it is causal, then our brain laps it up. The likelihood is that this justification will not even be used as learning for future predictions (the instinctive thought process would need to search for this information!)
But the decision seems logical!
We make many decisions instinctively, then find ways to rationalise them – even to ourselves. Once we have made an intuitive leap and come to a conclusion, it becomes a fact or a belief. We now find reasons to prove that decision and to justify it. Simply because someone can give justification and reasons for a decision, does not mean it was made logically.
What can I do to enhance my thinking?
Firstly, recognise that there is a difference between thinking quality and speed. Know that quality thinking takes effort, strategies and diligence. If a fast / ‘near enough’ answer is acceptable, then using intuition is fine. If you are making an important decision, then:
• Decide how the decision will be made (make a checklist, for example)
• Decide what information you will need to determine the outcome
• Understand the biases that are likely to impact your judgement – in particular, answer the right question, ignore intensity bias and gather the right information. Question the cues that have been offered – are they there to prime your thinking?
A great example is when a real estate agent shows you a house. Do you say “I love it” and use the limited information and your intensity of response to make your decision, or do you plan your way through it? Do you let the agent ‘anchor’ your price perception with their estimate (“someone else has made an offer of…”), or do you do your research and gather external evidence and avoid their priming anchor? Do you take the time to get inspections, check the deeds, etc, or do you let the ‘halo effect’ tell you that because you have an intensely positive feeling about the place, it must be ‘all good’?
This is only one example of how intuitive thinking and cognitive bias can interfere with great decision making and getting a quality outcome. It happens all the time in work, in societies and almost every interaction.
When has your intuition lessened the quality of your decision making – and did you even notice?
Contact me if you want to see how these ideas can enhance your behavioural and communication performance.