Wednesday, November 09, 2020

The Perils of Quick Thinking

Who’s the hero in most organizations? The person noted for quick thinking and the ability to “think on her feet?” Or the one who takes time to consider the options and weight the alternatives, even if the answer appears clear?

No contest, right?

In his book ”Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for snap judgments of all kinds. Yet even he includes caveats about leaping to conclusions: marketers can manipulate our first impressions, high arousal moments make us "mind blind," focusing on the wrong cue leaves us vulnerable to "the Warren Harding Effect" (i.e., voting for a handsome but hapless president).

Are snap judgments always right? Surely not. Are considered ones always better? No, they aren’t. Speed neither guarantees being right, nor always prevents it. To spend time on minuscule details is often wasteful. To ponder the nature of intervention when the person at the next table is choking is idiotic.

That’s the problem with the fashion for black and white thinking. Answers must be right or wrong, where reality is messy and inconclusive. Fast decisions are sometimes essential, sometimes not. It all depends on the circumstances. But because marketers credit the average person with an attention span of a few seconds, they shun products or ideas whose message cannot be compressed into a 30-second sound bite.

Yet when a situation looks like one you’ve met before — or your instant reaction is to say “yes” or “no” without further thought — can you be sure you’re right? Might things look the same, yet be quite different on closer inspection? A friend of mine tells the story of doing business with a supplier in the Far East for many years. Each transaction was the same. An order was placed, the goods were made and despatched, together with an invoice, and when they arrived and were seen to be satisfactory, the invoice was paid.

A new manager judged this process was unnecessary. Despite the protests of those who had dealt with that supplier for years, he immediately directed payment should be sent with the order. That was the way he had always done it. You can guess what happened. The containers arrived full of old lumber and the supplier could not be located.

Leaders and their businesses easily fall into the trap of believing they act with proper thought, when their thoughts are either instant, gut reactions or simple repetitions of what has gone before. By thinking fast — taking your intuitive reaction as correct — you greatly increase the chances of being blinded to important changes in circumstance. Second thoughts arrive too late.

In ”Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less,” Guy Claxton describes a simple experiment that proved rapid thinking prevented people reaching the correct conclusions. Even when forced to wait before giving an answer, those who still got it wrong were found to have used the extra time thinking about unrelated matters. They relied on their immediate conclusion and saw no need to waste more time questioning it. Those who used to time to realize the correct answer, didn’t spend more effort on the problem itself either. But by thinking about the nature of the problem and what its purpose was, they realized they had underestimated its complexity and so to reevaluate their answer.

How you think may produce different answers to the same question. You can’t be certain in advance an instant answer is right or wrong, but taking time to produce an alternative may well tell you which it is. Our minds are easily fooled by appearances and far too attracted to past answers. In our thoughtless worship of speed, we forget how poorly it copes with ambiguity, change or novelty. Thinking on your feet can lead to falling on your face.

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