Long have I railed about the dangers of following your gut. Better to work through a problem, especially a difficult and intractable one, before making a decision. Call it the power of rational thinking.
One understands, only too well, the appeal of emotion. One understands that certain people, who barely know how to think rationally, tell us that we are all slaves to our irrational emotions. Then again, why do they think that the call of emotion is irrational?
Obviously, these champions of irrational emotion want to undo the Enlightenment. Their fellow travelers want to repeal the Industrial Revolution because they want to save the planet. How better to save the planet than producing mass starvation.
If they are behavioral economists they also believe that we do not have free will and that our decisions are never arrived at freely.
Here’s a warning: beware of people who try to convince you that you are not a rational being and do not have free will. It’s easier to take away your freedom—the better to allow the behavioral economists to run your life—when they convince you that you do not have any.
Now, Olga Khazan reports on research conducted by Harvard professor, Jennifer Lerner. Khazan begins by presenting the conventional wisdom about following your gut. She adds a dash of irony, for effect:
Let’s say you’re making a hard choice, one that could impact your life significantly. Every time you think you've settled on something, the other option tugs you back to its side. You end up where you started: It's a draw.
Should you make ever-more-detailed lists of pros and cons and seek advice from even more trusted sources? Or should you go with your gut?
Many people would suggest the latter: Listen to your gut, or your heart, or some other part of your body that couldn’t possibly know what those stock options will be worth in five years. For the advice-giver, “Just do what feels right!” is safe guidance to offer, since if you nudged the decision-maker toward a huge mistake, at least they’d feel good making it.
Khazan is entirely correct. Unless some corner of your soul always tells you the right thing to do with those stock options.
One feels constrained to add that many of those-- like Warren Buffett-- who tell you to follow your gut are making a conceptual mistake. Since they have been studying and reading about the stock market for decades, they can see an opportunity or a danger more quickly than the rest of us. They must think that they are being cool when they say that their accumulated wisdom resides in their guts. It does not.
Enter Jennifer Lerner. Khazan explains Lerner’s research:
In a series of studies she recently published with Christine Ma-Kellams at the University of La Verne in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, she found that, in a task where managers were trying to detect an interviewee’s emotions, they assessed the situation more accurately when they thought systematically, than when they just relied on intuition.
In fact, much of Lerner’s research focuses on how emotions can influence decision-making—and not always for the better. Your gut, to the extent that it reflects your feelings, might be steering you wrong.
People like to be told to go with their gut. It’s easier than having to think something through, to seek advice, to evaluate the evidence and to draw a conclusion. Going with your gut makes you lazy. It relieves you of the dire necessity of doing some work.
As Lerner puts it:
Anger gets you in the game, but once you’re in the game, you need to think.
With any luck you will have thought through your game plan before you get in the game, but that’s a quibble.
But, what about happiness? You may recall that I posted about the happiness industry two days ago. I was highly skeptical of the current psycho and corporate tendency to try to improve worker performance by engineering happiness… by whatever means.
Lerner has also debunked the happiness mongers:
Surprisingly, though, happiness isn’t much better at inspiring good decisions. Several studies have shown that people who were in a positive mood put more faith in the length of a message, rather than its quality, or in the attractiveness or likability of the source. Given that it’s typically the amicable job interview that results in an offer, this might explain some of the economic advantages that flow to tall men or attractive people.
Allow me to explain. If you are interviewing a job candidate and are in a good mood, if your mind is awash in positive thinking, if you are following your bliss, you are more likely to choose a candidate who is more attractive, even if the person is less qualified or less capable of doing the job.
Happiness can deceive. It can cloud judgment.
But, what about sadness? Lerner suggests that some degree of sadness can make you more thoughtful, but that too much sadness can shut down your mind:
Under certain circumstances, sadness can be good, since it fosters systematic thought. The slightly melancholy, to whom no option appeals very much, will dutifully think, “on the one hand, x, but on the other hand y,” Lerner said. And that’s good! But too much sadness can set off rumination— “you keep thinking x, x, x, x,” she said—which is not going to get you any closer to signing on the dotted line (or not!) with satisfaction and relief.
What’s more, sadness might make you more impatient. A 2013 study by Lerner and others found that people who felt sad accepted up to 34 percent less money in order to get paid now, rather than three months from now. But at least it might make you more generous toward others: She’s also found that sad people allocate more to welfare recipients than angry people would, since the angry would likely blame poor people for their own misfortune.
Lerner concludes that we should not think that the right emotional state will naturally or automatically cause you to make a good decision. The point deserves emphasis.
You should not act precipitously when you are overcome by emotion. Especially when sending out emails. Deliberation, even systematic deliberation, will often yield a better decision. Of course, you will not even think to engage the process if you do not believe that you are a rational being and that you can exercise free will.