Friday, July 26, 2013

When in doubt - Do the right thing!

Someone I respect a lot used to always tell me - " When in doubt, do the right thing!" If only everything were so easy in life....

I recently had a discussion with a friend for a while about two approaches to decision making, judgments and handling doubts. First of the approaches was to trust your instincts and in other words 'doing what your heart says', which this friend of mine said that he follows for the most part. The second approach is the what I would call the researcher approach, look for data (to support or deny hypothesis) and make a decision after all data, all options have been carefully analyzed and what not. I do personally feel that over time I have slowly started falling into the second category. Blame it on academics, research, psychology or life experiences. But I definitely was the other way around too and at times I still follow my instincts.

So what do you do when you for instance have to choose a new candidate for a job, have to choose your life partner, make an investment etc etc etc? Would you rely on your instincts or would you take a rational approach to things in life? According to David Myers, a social psychologist whose textbook on Social Psychology is one of my favorites - intuitions have both merits and demerits. To define intuition as he discusses, intuition is something which develops over time with time and expertise, it is a form of automatic processing, a quick easy way of responding to things, more like an 'unreasoned' thought. Consider cooking, driving or even doing math, what begins as an effortful task in the beginning using all of your concentration then slowly becomes automatic. Your mom after ages of cooking might keep looking into your eyes and talking while she is effortlessly chopping the vegetables without even looking at them. Driving is another example of a form of automatic processing where as you become a more experienced driver, the less you feel the need to seriously concentrate on the act of driving. Intuition is a form of reflex action, you don't have to consciously sit and think to jerk your finger away when it touches fire. Intuition is more like heuristic, which you use for your convenience to put less time into thinking. I am not arguing that intuition is bad. In fact intuition works pretty well in many cases. And as mentioned here, intuition could develop over time as you become better at something. Speaking about intuition this way, I guess we think that intuition can be something that can probably be learned.

Researchers Nalini Ambady and Bob Rosenthal, showed students clips as short as few seconds and asked them to make judgments about a teacher's abilities and as they found in several studies later as well, that often we make our judgments in real thin slices of time as short as a few seconds without even thinking much and a lot of times we are right too. But...Would you totally rely just on those thin slice snap judgments? Would you want to give others benefit of doubt or would you decide then and there at the very first second for instance that your boyfriend is cheating on you without thinking more rationally about it? We overestimate our ability to predict behaviors of us as well as others. As Myers says we are more 'confident' in some of our responses than 'correct'.  Affective forecasting which I have written about in the past in one of my posts, is a classic example of how much we can err when it comes to predicting our feelings and emotions at a future time. Similarly we try to predict our future behavior too often failing miserably. We tell ourselves that we will work on reducing our weight and then try to predict that we will be working on weight loss (as if that is the only thing you have to do in life), buy all sorts of fruits, vegetables, healthy stuff and what not and ultimately actually end up eating at a restaurant instead of eating at home because of lack of time. Not that this is the case with everyone but we often we try to even postpone our 'predicted' future behavior (I will start my diet from Monday..or I will start going to gym starting next week) and in the end probably never behave the way we had predicted we would. With us not really doing a great job with predictions, would it not be smart to wait and think for a second than just deciding something based on gut feeling?

Intuitions or gut instinct should perhaps not be ignored altogether but at the same should be taken more with a pinch of salt at times. An intuition could often be a mere assumption or snap judgment or just a cynical view that we now unknowingly have, based on our past experiences. Intuition could also be some part of our mind trying to tell us something is good or bad. I guess the point is, intuition should probably be a starting point for further inquiry as Myers puts it. In case of fight or flight situations, intuitions probably help you better than careful analysis. If someone is a feet away from you with a knife in their hand to stab you, of course, the easier option is to use your mental heuristic or intuition to save yourself right away than to sit and perform analysis. Life situations unfortunately are not always black and white as someone directly coming with a knife to stab you. There are so many gray areas and it depends on what is at stake. . That said - when in doubt, do the right thing. Intuition is perhaps a starting point for further analysis. On the surface something may seem right or wrong in a second but often times a little critical evaluation of our intuitions could really save us. Data doesn't lie, at least for the most part. So it is not a bad idea to sit and evaluate things. I agree it takes more cognitive energy and resources compared to just going by your gut feeling, but I think it is worth it in many cases. For instance, I would rather hire one or two good employees after careful analysis and consideration than hire ten useless employees purely based on intuition.

But the friend I mentioned in the very first paragraph also mentioned that if you keep analyzing everything you are going to lose out on simple happiness from small things. True, very true. But whether trusting your intuitions alone without much analysis is associated with long term happiness  is something that is still not very clear to me.

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