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Decision-making: can you trust your instincts?

We hardwire instincts in our brain

Day-to-day living requires us to process huge amounts of intricate information.  Just to cross a busy road, for example, we need to work out how far away the next car is, how fast it’s travelling, how wide the road is, and how long it will take us to cross. We do this in milliseconds and yet we don’t even know we’re doing it.

The ability to cross a road is so complex that it takes the first 10 years of our life to develop the necessary brain circuitry. We call this hardwiring – it’s automatic and it’s non-conscious.

People we consider exceptionally talented – musicians, university professors, sports-people – similarly hardwire their skills: a tennis pro knows where a 120mph serve will bounce because they pick up their opponent’s micro signals, muscle movements etc. and process them almost instantly so they are in the correct position to return the serve. Years of practice have created the hardwiring to make such abilities seem instinctive.

How often have we heard the expression “they’re a natural”?  The truth however isn’t so glamorous – as Michelangelo said “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not call it genius at all.”

The plastic brain

The brain’s ability to reorganise and restructure itself is called neuroplasticity, and it gives human beings a unique survival advantage. For instance, we are able to inhabit any part of the planet because our brain can wire itself to survive under different conditions. We also learn and hardwire complicated tasks such as driving, writing, using a smartphone etc.

While neuroplasticity allows us to go through life hardwiring new brain structures it also brings its own problems. Take driving to work –we often can’t remember the journey we’ve just taken because we’re on autopilot: all well and good until one day we find ourselves driving to the office when we should be heading to the airport!

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not call it genius at all.

Michelangelo

It’s easy to trick your brain

Our brain also has a tendency to make sense of partial information and jump to conclusions, sometimes perceiving things that aren’t actually there which neuroscientists believe is a survival instinct from our hunter-gatherer days. For example, if we see an orange flash in the jungle, our brain is hardwired to fill in the missing information to keep us safe – we perceive it as a tiger and prepare for action – even if it then turns out to be something innocuous.

This survival imperative has drawbacks – our brain often fills in the missing information based on hunches and draws the wrong conclusions.  In the Kanizsa Triangle (below), our brain pieces together a complete picture from separate fragments to give the impression of a bright white triangle, and a black-outlined triangle.

We see whatever our brain thinks we should!

Look at the chessboard below.  Unbelievably squares A and B are the same colour but B appears lighter once the chessboard is complete. This shows in a dramatic way that we only see what we expect, not what’s really there – even when we know that A and B are the same colour, our brain overrides this knowledge.  Incredibly 90% of what we see is generated from within the brain (the occipital cortex) and only 10% arrives through our eyes and optic nerve. Ultimately, we see whatever our brains think we should!

Confirmation bias

In the same way that the brain tricks us with optical illusions, it can also misinform us with labeling and stereotyping errors (thinking illusions). For example, when companies identify ‘high flyers’ or ‘under-performers’, the danger is that those labels will stick. Categorisation is so convenient for the brain that we don’t look for any evidence to challenge our perceptions, so if a ‘low’ performer does good work we may not see it, and if a ‘top’ performer falters we may fail to notice.

Confirmation bias is selective thinking, where we tend to notice things that confirm our beliefs, and ignore, or undervalue evidence that contradicts them: hence the phrase “give a dog a bad name”. Powerful as our instinct is, it can lead us to the wrong decisions! All the research shows that we can’t rid ourselves of cognitive biases, but knowing we have them helps us to make more balanced decisions.

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