“Those who have deep smarts can see the whole picture and yet zoom in on a specific problem others haven’t been able to diagnose. Almost intuitively, they can make the right decision, at the right level, with the right people.” Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap
People who have the ability to consistently say the right thing at the right moment understand the bigger picture and the ramifications of change in a system without having to explain the logical conclusion that brought them to the decision have what organizations want, a deeper understanding, something close to wisdom.
Wisdom in this sense comes from experience, good judgment and an understanding that most important decisions contain no certainty. Add large amounts of financial responsibility and time constraints and we move to what is called “rapid cognition” or the ability to conceptualize the details and the big picture in seconds.
The brain operates from a conscious strategy, which is logical and definitive, unfortunately it is slow and needs a lot of information. It also operates from an unconscious or intuitive strategy, what Malcom Gladwell terms the “adaptive unconscious,” which is fast and frugal. This massive unconscious computer is constantly at work and usually has the right answer. The problem is that it’s difficult to explain or teach and most call it experience.
In 1997, the “Iowa Experiment” demonstrated how we intuitively may have the right answer, but ignore it in favor of more information/data. The Iowa scientists hooked gamblers up to stress detection apparatus and placed four decks of cards in front of them, two blue and two red. Each card in the decks either wins you money or costs you money. The gamblers were told to choose cards in a way that maximizes their winnings. What they didn’t know when they started was that the red decks were loaded with cards that win you a lot but also lose you a lot, while the blue cards had a steady payout of $50 and modest penalties. The main question for the Iowa scientists was to see how long it would take them to figure it out.
What they found was that after about fifty cards most people begin to figure out the pattern, but continue on until about the eightieth card before they can actually explain why the red decks are dangerous. The interesting part of the experiment however, is that the gamblers started generating stress responses to the red decks after only choosing ten cards, forty cards before they were even able to say they had some vague idea about what was going on. And what’s more interesting is that at about that time, they began to display behavior changes and started to choose more blue cards. “In other words, the gamblers figured the game out before they realized they had figured the game out: they began making the necessary adjustments long before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they were supposed to be making.” They knew but they didn’t know that they knew.
Research into developing our unconscious computer is a fascinating vast field where organizations from various fields come together in order to boost the decision-making power of men and women, especially those in positions of power. What we know is that this amazing computer is not infallible and shuts down under specific and consistent circumstances. They include:
1. Gathering a lot of data, so much that we are no longer able to think outside of the data
2. Bias, especially stereotypes
3. Lack of experience
4. Life and death situations combined with a lack of experience
5. Wanting a particular outcome desperately
6. Not being aware of how you make decisions
7. Fear of making a mistake
Add time and other pressures to all of these and you get a recipe for bungled business and life choices. The good news is that we can all overcome this and have access to a better decision-making strategy. Let’s begin with a brief self-assessment: Answer the questions (Yes or No) then include with a follow-up statement on how you intend to incorporate self-assessment and constant learning in your life for each item.
• I keep a journal or notebook to record my insights, creative ideas and questions
• I take time daily for contemplation and reflection
• I am always learning something new
• I read constantly
• I love identifying and solving problems
• My friends would describe me as open-minded and curious
• When I hear or read a new word or phrase, I look it up and make a note of it
• I know a lot about other cultures and am always learning more
• I solicit personal feedback from my friends, relations and colleagues
• I love learning
• I am willing to acknowledge my mistakes
• My closest friends would agree that I am willing to acknowledge my mistakes
• I learn from my mistakes and rarely make the same one twice
• I question “conventional wisdom” and authority
• When a celebrity I admire endorses a product, I am more likely to buy it
• I can articulate my most fundamental belief and the reasons I hold them
• I have changed a deeply held belief because of practical experience
• I am calm and positive in the face of obstacles
• I view adversity as an opportunity for growth
• I am sometimes susceptible to superstition
In many cases we lose access to the unconscious computer because we have been programmed with beliefs that restrict our decision-making options. In many cases, we are unaware of the sources we utilize to obtain and verify information. We know, for instance, that we have opinions, assumptions, and beliefs about a wide variety of topics: human nature, ethics, politics, ethnic groups, scientific truth, sexuality, religion, medicine, the meaning of life, art, marriage, parenting, history, other cultures, etc. But are we aware of how we found these beliefs? Or where we got the information on which they’re based?
In one study of using hypnosis to help children who suffered from extreme phobias, psychologists discovered cartoons and in particular disturbing cartoons buried deep in the recesses of these young minds.
Start by choosing any three of the areas mentioned above; for example, you might choose marriage, politics, and art. Then, in your notebook, write down at least three ideas, opinions, assumptions, or beliefs that you hold in the areas you have chosen to consider. For example: Art
1. “I believe that art is an important part of any developed society”
2. “I believe that being an artist is predominantly determined by talent”
3. “What is considered Art is up for debate”
After you have listed at least three beliefs about each of your chosen areas, ask yourself:
1. How did I form this idea?
2. How firmly do I believe it?
3. Why do I maintain it?
4. What would make me change my belief?
5. Which of my beliefs inspire the strongest emotions?
Then look at each of your beliefs in the three areas you have chosen to examine and consider the role of the following sources in its formation:
1. Media; books, the Internet, television, radio, newspapers, and magazines.
2. People: family, teachers, physicians, religious leaders, bosses, friends, and associates
3. Your own experience
What criteria do you use for assessing the validity of information you receive? Do most of your ideas come from books? or are you primarily influenced by family? How much of what you read in the newspaper or see on television do you believe? Aim to determine, through reflection and contemplation, the dominant source of your information and the underpinnings of your beliefs and opinions. See if you hold any beliefs for which you have no experiential verification. Is there a way you could test your convictions in experience? (adapted from Michael J. Gelb’s “How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci”)
What we find is that many of us are operating on second-hand, second-rate information. Developing your own data-base, having the ability to access this information and understanding how your brain works will be the topic of our next article, Look for it in April!