Sometimes, It's Best Just To Stop Thinking

There are generally two types of people in the world when it comes to decision making.  The first takes the time to gather information, evaluates and analyzes several options, and,  makes a decision backed by sound methodology and reasoning making sense to them.  The other type, of which I tend to be included, makes decisions based on little information with reasoning along the lines of “It just feels right.”

More Information + More Time =  Better Decisions?

Gathering more information and taking the time to make calm, careful decisions is better, right? Not always. There is an implicit belief in our society that more information is better which is supported by basic economic theories.  Economist do concede and make the exception that this is not true when the information is not free.  The general rule is, according to economics, that more information is always better unless the cost of acquiring further information exceeds the anticipated gain from it.

In his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, Gerd Gigerenzer proposes that this is not true even when the information is free and that, while the belief that more information is better is accurate in some cases, there is a range of situations in which less time, less information, or fewer alternatives can actually lead to better decisions and outcomes.

In 2000, he asked 100 random pedestrians in Berlin to pick 50 stocks they recognized out of a list of 100.  Taking the ten stocks most often chosen, he created a portfolio and submitted it to an investment magazine, Capital, to take part in a contest they were conducting. More than 10,000 participants, including the editor-in-chief and professionals with sophisticated computer stock picking programs and insider information, submitted portfolios.

Even in the down market which followed, his portfolio, based solely on collective recognition, gained 2.5% and out performed 88% of all the portfolios submitted.  The editor-in-chief of the magazine lost 18.5% on his portfolio.  In a second similar experiment, the results were almost identical. Given that some 70% of mutual funds perform below the market in any given year, these results were not totally surprising.

Unconscious Intelligence

These experiments depict a concept Gigerenzer calls “a beneficial degree of ignorance” where a gut feeling can outperform a considerable amount of knowledge and information because often, we make decisions based on intuitive judgments which have a real basis in the unconscious mind.  In the stock example, something he calls the “recognition heuristic” was at work.  The recognition heuristic implies that when a person recognizes one object but not the other, then, they infer that the recognized object has a higher value.

This kind of unconscious intelligence has been identified to be located in the anterior frontomedian cortex of the brain by functional magnetic resonance imaging scans. Although the exact functions of this area of the brain are still not specifically known, the region is widely associated with unconscious intelligence. Such intuition is not impulsive, but is believed to be a form of unconscious evaluation and can be consciously overruled.

When Too Much Thinking Can Be Deadly

Similarly, too much information and too much thinking can be detrimental – even deadly – in other cases.  For example, imagine a Marine on the front lines of combat in a war zone with bullets whizzing by and bombs exploding.  Trying to gather too much information before acting could prove deadly.  An airplane pilot could crash before they analyze multiple options and arrive at the best one in an emergency situation.  The gut feelings of trained professionals are based on unconscious skills which can be impeded by too much deliberation.  In such cases, thinking too much about the processes involved or using more time, thought, or attention can slow down and disrupt performance disastrously.

In the book, The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success
by Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske, they write:

New York City firefighters receive over 600 hours of training and a multitude of written exams before they are eligible for assignment.  By the time they encounter their first fire, a lot of what they need to do is so practiced and ingrained they could practically perform their job in their sleep. …this is no different for FBI agents…(650 hours of training), doctors (an average of 11 years), and many other professionals that call for performance under pressure.

Thinking Can Lose The Game

The same is true for experienced athletes.  In his book, Gigerenzer tells of studies of novice and expert golfers.  Under timed pressure, novice golfers, not surprisingly, performed worse while expert golfers did better when they had less time. With repetition and practice, motor skills become unconscious and are best when performed outside of conscious awareness.

For this reason, gymnasts, professional tennis and basketball players, and much more put a lot of time into practicing; so they don’t have to think consciously about everything in the moments when they need to perform at their best.  They can rely on the quick, intuitive decisions of their unconscious brains.

Permission To Stop Thinking

You do this too. Think of tying your shoes, riding a bike, or driving a car.  While learning, you need to consciously pay attention and concentrate on every detail.  After that, having to think consciously of the steps involved would be detrimental to performing the task at hand. Once someone is skilled at something, it’s best just to stop thinking.

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3 Comments

  1. Judy M Hampton Reply

    This brings to mind the course I took for my Senior Seminar at Guilford College on Expertise. It was a study of how expertise is gained in any given field. The bottom line is exactly what you said: do it often enough and well enough and it becomes second nature. Muscle memory takes over in physical endeavors and intuitive intelligence takes over in other areas. I chose interviewing as my area of study and the then President of Guilford College, Bill Rogers, became my on campus mentor and allowed me to sit in and assist in interviewing prospective faculty. I find myself automatically switching into “interview” mode when meeting new people. Love to you, Mom

  2. Bob Miller Reply

    Interesting thououghts, I’ll have to give this one more thought. lol

    • dblhampton Reply

      Bob, sometimes it’s best to not think! Take a break! 🙂

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