I bet you’re not as smart as you think you are


So you think you’re smart.  You make logical well balanced decisions, and don’t let your intuition get in the way of logic.  That’s you: business minded, professional you might say.

Yeah right.  Let’s try a little experiment.  It’s borrowed from Daniel Kahneman’s amazing book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

For this to work you will need to enlist the support of a second person.  Even then it might not – I am expanding the concept of what is possible within the Blogosphere today.  Ready:  here goes.

I’d like YOU to read this question and write down your answer.

“In a lake there is a patch of lily pads.  Every day, the patch doubles in size.  If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long does it take for the patch to cover half the lake?  24 days OR 47 days?”

lily pad

Done?  Now please ask your supporter to read the following question and write down the answer.  It is VERY important that he or she does not read the rest of this article, and that you do not give away anything about what has been in the article so far.

“In a lake there is a patch of lily pads.  Every day, the patch doubles in size.  If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long does it take for the patch to cover half the lake?  24 days OR 47 days?”

Done?  Sorry if that was a bit hard to read. It was deliberate.

According to research Kahneman refers to carried out at Princeton, 90% of people who read the first question get it wrong, as opposed to 35% who read the greyed out version.  (The answer, obviously, is 47 days.  Obviously.)

Why would this be?  It’s because the second version is harder to read, meaning you have to read it more carefully and deliberately,  This has the effect of slowing your thinking down, which makes the intuitive response of 24 days less likely to take over.

Food for thought?  This simple example captures the essence of Kahneman’s book.  The proposal is that humans make far less rational decisions than they would like to think, and that even when they are making a conscious effort to apply logic, the intuitive response (what Kahneman calls System 1) is very hard to resist.  As you read the book he packs it with examples:  “Which is a better bet, option 1 or option 2?”    You weigh it up, apply all the logic you can muster, turn the page and find out you STILL got it wrong.

If we accept that this is human nature, and there’s not an awful lot we can do about it, what are some intelligent ways to address the fundamentally bad decision making which goes on around us?

I don’t have a perfect answer, I’m sure, but here are some tactics which might work:

  • Allow more time for decisions.  Slow it down if it really matters.
  • Give people time to consider the question, and to weigh it up in their own minds before discussing it.  This is particularly appreciated by the Introverts in life.
  • Involve more people in the decision.  This at least increases the odds in your favour of logic being used somewhere along the line
  • Listen carefully to the arguments against the decision.  Summarise what you think the arguers are saying, to make sure you have understood their thinking.
  • Sleep on it.  Slower thinking sometimes kicks in overnight, as you process the decision in your subconscious.

I’ll finish today with one more example, if you like.  Same thing applies.  You answer this, then have your “helper” answer the fainter version.

“If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long does it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?  100 minutes OR 5 minutes?”

machine

“If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long does it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?  100 minutes OR 5 minutes?”

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you the answer.  Logic will no doubt prevail, won’t it?

If it’s any comfort, I got both of these wrong when I first read it.  Less comforting, to me at any rate, was that my wife got them both right.

 

 

 

About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at www.hownot2.com
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10 Responses to I bet you’re not as smart as you think you are

  1. Leo Seymour says:

    Hello Michael, Of course one could argue that there is another correct answer to the first question, which is 1 day i.e. the final day when the lilies cover the second half of the pond. Interesting point made though, as I have always felt the need to trust my instincts more and be less analytical! Best, Leo

    Like

  2. Carolann says:

    I got them both wrong. And I’m not asking my husband to do this! 🙂

    Like

  3. Colin Smith says:

    Thanks Michael, another great post. I do agree with your tactics and would add in that everyone in that decision making process learns to both listen actively to each other,and not interrupt, each having a certain amount of time in which to speak, and to share their own thinking. The quality of the decision will be significantly improved. Colin

    Like

  4. Pingback: 5 Tactics for better decision makin | In this world, but not of it

  5. Roy O'Neil says:

    Excellent article / blog. Interesting read. I teach structured problem solving and creative problem solving both with a decision making module. Given me some ideas to work with – from the creative point of view I would be looking for answers for why it is not 47 and could be 24! I’ll definitely look up the book. Roy

    Like

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