Your Customer Success dashboard says everything is fine with a key customer. But you’re not so sure. The data looks positive, but your intuition nags at you. Is it time to check in? Should you trust your head or your gut?
The vast majority of business leaders espouse data-driven decision making. Looking at the numbers, they assert, keeps employees from making erroneous choices. Convention holds that taking the time to carefully analyze objective evidence is the best way to make decisions.
But blind reasoning can be dangerous. Consider the case of a gunnery captain on a British ship under attack during the first Gulf War in 1991.1 The ship was just a few miles off the coast when the crew saw an unidentified radar blip heading towards them at high speed. The commander had only seconds to decide if the image was an allied aircraft or an enemy strike. If it was an inbound missile and he didn’t fire, his crew faced certain death. But if he fired on a friendly aircraft, he would take the life of the pilot.
At the last possible moment, the gunnery captain fired. He was right—it was an enemy missile—but how he had correctly identified the blip was a mystery to both him and the crew. Investigators concluded that the captain had subconsciously detected a threatening flight path. Allied aircraft typically flew at 3,000 feet, but missiles starting from the surface were invisible to radar until they reached an altitude of 1,000 feet. Although the gunnery captain was not aware of it at the time, analysis showed the blip had in fact, suddenly appeared on the radar display. His intuition had saved the ship.
Neuroscientists say we are always of two minds: logical and intuitive. We are most familiar with our conscious, rational side. Contemplative and controlled, it deliberates options and makes careful decisions. We tend to overlook our primal, subconscious, emotional side. Our reflexes hide in the shadows, making lightning-fast decisions sifting through vastly more stimuli. Lacking the power of language, our enigmatic subconscious communicates information through somatosensory responses. While we can’t put a finger on it, we get a gut feeling whenever something seems out of place.
There’s a growing body of evidence that good decisions access intuitive processing. Using brain imaging techniques, neuroscientists have discovered that when executives consider strategic options, their minds recruit centers known for inferring the impact on people.2 With experienced leaders, data informs but doesn’t direct outcomes. Superstar investor Warren Buffet, for example, regularly looks past the numbers and makes gut decisions.3
But having mental abilities just below the surface doesn’t mean we should always trust them. Author Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how four white police officers mistakenly shot Amadou Diallo, a black man from Guinea, in the Bronx.4 After seeing what they thought was suspicious activity, the police confronted him. When he turned away, they fired instinctively, believing he was reaching for a gun. But after the smoke of 41 gunshots cleared, none could be found. Gladwell says the officers subconsciously made tragic errors. In a blink of an eye, they had completely misinterpreted Diallo’s background, motivations and state of mind. Rather than observing a curious foreigner reaching for his wallet, their instincts told them he was a brazen thug, intent on killing them.
To speed processing, the subconscious uses mental shortcuts which can be a blessing or a curse. With enough experience, the adaptive unconscious can find meaningful patterns in data far more quickly than the conscious mind. But the same machinery produces phenomena such as confirmation bias, our tendency to notice information that supports our beliefs and ignore information that contradicts them.
Our goal then is to use both logic and intuition optimally to make decisions. Becoming aware of our natural tendencies and developing greater emotional maturity are key first steps. Author Julia Galef recommends that we spend time thinking like “scouts” investigating possibilities instead of “soldiers” defending our positions.5 When we remain curious, grounded, and open to the possibility our conclusions may be wrong, we leverage our intuition while logically checking the blind spots that naturally come with it.
So should you follow your head or your gut? Use your head—unless your gut, guided by experience, says otherwise. Investigate further and then be open to changing your position.
1 Klein, G. (1999). Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, pp. 75. MIT Press, ISBN 0262260867
2 Blackman, A. (2014). The inner workings of the executive brain. The Wall Street Journal, online edition, April 27, 2014.
3 How Buffet relies on his emotions, The Emotionally Intelligent Investor: How Self-Awareness, Empathy and Intuition Drive Performance blog. Accessed August, 2016
4 Gladwell, M. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, pp. 189-196. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316172324.
5 Galef, J. Why you think you’re right—even if you’re wrong. TEDx PSU talk, February 2016.