Friday, July 1, 2011

"Stop Trusting Your Instincts"

I have sometimes warned about the danger of following your instincts, thus, of going with your gut.

Great executives and investors have happily told the world that they became tycoons by going with their gut.

As advice goes, it’s misleading, largely because it oversimplifies.

Now, Ted Cadsby explains why this is so in his column: “Stop Trusting Your Instincts.”

Cadsby offers a compelling analogy. A pilot can trust his instincts and his perceptions if he is flying on a clear day. What he sees out of the cockpit will be identical with what his instruments tell him.

But, if he is flying at night, his perceptions will be telling him one thing and his instruments will be telling him something else.

In Cadsby’s words: “But piloting at night is completely different: you are flying blind so you are entirely dependent on the instrument readings. In fact, you should rely exclusively on the instruments because your internal instincts will lead you astray. Without visual cues, our brains try to makes sense of position and direction by relying on a sense of balance created by mechanisms in our inner ears. But our inner ears can be easily fooled: in the darkness, a plane can feel as though it's ascending or descending when it's doing the opposite.”

He continues: “The inner sense of balance is such a strong instinct that a pilot will be tempted to disbelieve the instruments when they contradict gut feelings. Experienced pilots know to over-ride their instincts, but new pilots can succumb to the strong pull of their intuitions — sometimes with tragic consequences.”

Cadsby tells us that this is probably what happened to John F. Kennedy, Jr., an insufficiently experienced night-time pilot, when he tried to land in Martha’s Vineyard in 1999.

In most everyday situations, Cadsby explains, we can trust our instincts. Mostly we confront simple situations involving a single cause. Since our instincts are attuned to respond as though there is a single cause for a problem, we can deal with “straightforward” challenges by following our gut.

But  sometimes we face complex challenges. We can no longer see where we are; we are flying in the dark.

As an executive moves up the corporate ladder or a military officer moves up the chain of command, he will be facing more and more complexity. The problems will no longer be simple. They will have multiple causes. Each solution will have multiple possible outcomes.

Yet, our intuition, our instinct, our gut will want to respond as though the problem is simple, as though there is a simple cause. Or, as though there is a simple explanation.

Cadsby writes: “Of the many ways our intuitions are mismatched with complexity, the most profound is the basic cause-effect model that underpins all of our thinking: our brains are always automatically searching for simple, single causes to explain all manner of things. Our intuition that every effect has a single cause is a survival-enhancing mental model that is well-suited to a world of straightforward problems. But applying this simple explanatory model to complexity can be just as misleading as relying on your inner ear to tell you where you are. Complex problems are characterized by multiple causal factors, all interacting with each other through intricate feedback loops. The only way to assess complexity is to look for multiple causes and assess how they influence one another (through, for example, system thinking).”

Some executives have extensive experience dealing with complexity. Their experience will allow them to grasp complexity more fully and more surely than will someone who is just starting out.

The experienced executive might feel as though he is just following his gut. But, the knowledge contained in his gut differs radically from the knowledge contained in the junior associate’s gut.

The same applies to politics. In Cadsby’s words: “So we insist that our politicians provide us with simple cause-effect explanations and implement simple cause-effect solutions. And we expect leaders of all kinds to have quick, easy solutions for all problems.”

He applies his principle to the financial crisis of 2008: “The financial meltdown of 2008 is a quintessential example of how oversimplified our assessment of a complex problem can be. We gravitate to blaming single individuals (Greenspan, Bernanke, Bush) or institutions (investment banks, mortgage lenders, rating agencies). But the shrewd financiers who avoided, even profited from, the crash were not focused on single elements. They analyzed the whole system — the web of interacting causes that collectively constituted an economic situation that was not sustainable. Likewise, the fix lies in addressing multiple elements within the system.”

Glib executives and investors who tell you to follow your gut are doing you a disservice. They should be telling you that until you reach their level of preeminence, you should work hard to master complex situations, and that the only way to do so is to trust your analysis more than your instincts.

When faced with difficult and complicated situations, it is often right to seek advice. And it is good to follow that advice, even, and especially, when it seems to be counter-intuitive.


The Ghost said...

another thing that is important is to have a strong feedback loop ... you can go with your gut but you need to be able to constantly evaluate and examine to quickly change course ...
Of course when you find yourself constantly flip flopping you quickly re-train your "gut" instincts to be more thoughtful and far sighted ...
The problem all to many "leaders" have is that they have poorly trained gut instincts ...
Its all part of the learning curve for leaders ... who after all, are in their position TO MAKE DECISIONS. The good one "go with their gut" but it is a gut that has vast experience and thus is more likely to make good decisions. Sometimes going with your gut means taking alot of advise and coming to some sort of consensus decision. But it is, and this is very important, a decision that the leader has to own and not blame others for if it doesn't work as well as hoped.

David Foster said...

Interesting. I've been thinking about doing a somewhat similar post, with the point that modern society requires facility in dealing with abstractions, the analogy that instrument flight is inherently more abstract than visual flight,and the argument that a proper college education should be to a significant extent "an Instrument rating for the mind."

Typically, though, what college actually does is to encourage people to reify abstractions rather than to use them properly.