Where’s the Off Switch?
There was once an intelligent centipede. Sitting on the edge of a table, he looked over and saw a tasty grain of sugar across the room. Clever as he was, he started to weigh up the best route: Which table leg should he crawl down—left or right—and which table leg should he crawl up? The next tasks were to decide which foot should take the first step, in which order the others should follow, and so on. He was adept at mathematics, so he analyzed all the variants and selected the best path. Finally, he took the first step. However, still engrossed in calculation and contemplation, he got tangled up and stopped dead in his tracks to review his plan. In the end, he came no further and starved.
The British Open golf tournament in 1999: French golfer Jean van de Velde played flawlessly until the final hole. With a three-shot lead, he could easily afford a double bogey (two over par) and still win. Child’s play! Entry into the big leagues was now only a matter of minutes away. All he needed to do was to play it safe. But as Van de Velde stepped up, beads of sweat began to form on his forehead. He teed off like a beginner. The ball sailed into the bushes, landing almost twenty feet from the hole. He became increasingly nervous. The next shots were no better. He hit the ball into knee-high grass, then into the water. He took off his shoes, waded into the water, and for a minute contemplated shooting from the pond. But he decided to take the penalty. He then shot into the sand. His body movements suddenly resembled those of a novice. Finally, he made it onto the green and—after a seventh attempt—into the hole. Van de Velde lost the British Open and secured a place in sporting history with his now-notorious triple bogey. It was the beginning of the end of his career. (He celebrated an impressive comeback in 2005.)
In the 1980s, Consumer Reports asked experienced tasters to sample forty-five different varieties of strawberry jelly. A few years later, psychology professors Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler repeated the experiment with students from the University of Washington. The results were almost identical. Both students and experts preferred the same type. But that was only the first part of Wilson’s experiment. He repeated it with a second group of students who, unlike the first group, had to fill in a questionnaire justifying their ratings in detail. The rankings turned out to be completely warped. Some of the best varieties ended up at the bottom of the rankings.
Essentially, if you think too much, you cut off your mind from the wisdom of your feelings. This may sound a little esoteric—and a bit surprising coming from someone like me who strives to rid my thinking of irrationality—but it is not. Emotions form in the brain, just as crystal-clear, rational thoughts do. They are merely a different form of information processing—more primordial, but not necessarily an inferior variant. In fact, sometimes they provide the wiser counsel.
This raises the question: When do you listen to your head and when do you heed your gut? A rule of thumb might be: If it is something to do with practiced activities, such as motor skills (think of the centipede, Van de Velde, or mastering a musical instrument) or questions you’ve answered a thousand times (think of Warren Buffett’s “circle of competence”), it’s better not to reflect to the last detail. It undermines your intuitive ability to solve problems. The same applies to decisions that our Stone Age ancestors faced—evaluating what was edible, who would make good friends, whom to trust. For such purposes, we have heuristics, mental shortcuts that are clearly superior to rational thought. With complex matters, though, such as investment decisions, sober reflection is indispensable. Evolution has not equipped us for such considerations, so logic trumps intuition.