Go With Your Gut?

My Friend Holly swims at a public pool.  Mothers often bring their 6- or 7-year-old sons into the women’s locker room, where, as you might imagine, women are undressed.  Periodically, as a naked woman turns to walk to the shower, she inadvertently finds herself facing the inquisitive face of a 6-year-old boy.

Why does this happen?

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The other day Holly was in that locker room when a woman walked through with two boys aged between infancy and 6 years old. She quickly flung a towel around her bare torso. Holly tells me she was ready to berate the mother, but instead, she took a few deep breaths and pulled herself together. Now calmer, she turned to the young mother and asked her why she brings her boys into the women’s changing area

The mom was defensive. “You think I should walk them through the men’s?” “Of course not” said Holly. “But one of the male lifeguards could walk your boys through the men’s locker room to meet you at the pool!”

According to the mother, that was too risky.  Her children could be sexually assaulted or stolen within the 15 meters (or one minute) of separation.

This may seem incredibly far removed from your own decision-making choices. But maybe it isn’t. Most of us are not very good at estimating risk. Our personal experience and how we interpret them colors our decisions more than we think.

In fact, even when we are shown data about relative risks, we still make decisions that conflict with them. For example, during the height of the pandemic lots of very thoughtful and intelligent people felt that there was no real danger.

We lean heavily on the information directly available to us. Those of use who know someone who died of the coronavirus take it seriously; those who don’t may not.

Two kinds of information influence us the most: the kind we have heard about recently or most noisily; and the kind we have experienced.  Both biases produce the same result. Despite whatever other information we discover, we give more weight to our personal history or what we have heard recently.

In 1992 I moved home to Miami, after living away for over a decade. For the first few months I stayed with my mom and stepfather.  Despite all of us having lived there for 30 years, we had never seen a hurricane. Every year, the authorities told us to stock up on essentials for hurricane season. But those warnings were much like the teacher in Charlie Brown comics: Wah Wah Wah.

Then Hurricane Andrew hit. We lost our roof. At an upstairs window I bailed giant trash cans of water out the window for 10 hours to keep the floor from falling. As the eye passed over us, we tried desperately to lighten the second floor more, so that it would not collapse. That included untacking, cutting, and hauling soaked carpet from its tacks which we then dragged down the stairs to the ground floor. We worked to save the house for at least 9 hours.

Andrew was the first ever category 5 hurricane to hit the Miami area. The closest in strength was “King”, a category 3 that had come ashore in 1950. My parents had moved to the area in 1961.

Anyone who lived through Andrew had a newfound fear of hurricanes. We listened rapt to meteorologists. The hurricane terror made Brian Norcross, the Miami weatherman, a national celebrity.

Even the government suddenly woke up to the fierceness of hurricanes. They changed building regulations and strengthened the early warning system as well as investing in evacuation and sheltering plans.

Back to the pool. The woman in the locker room may or may not know the real probability of her sons being stolen or molested while walking through the locker room. Nonetheless, she’s afraid because child-snatching and abuse is constantly in the news. While only 300 out of 74 million children are snatched in the US every year, that has less resonance than the Amber alert she received earlier today.

This isn’t irrational. In fact, if you believe what you hear on the news, you should definitely fear for your children. But the news doesn’t tell you the whole story.

We make our decisions defensively. Our focus is on reducing the risks we perceive. I see it in my work with clients all the time. Sometimes a CEO will see a competitor land a deal and instantly be afraid that he is losing market share. In reality there are thousands of prospective customers, and his pipeline is so full that they cannot possibly pursue every lead.

In his book Nudge, Richard Thaler says that when “people can think of relevant examples, they are more likely to be frightened and concerned than if they cannot.” The competitor’s success feels like a much bigger threat even when the pandemic is depressing the entire economy.

You may do this in your life too. While at the beach on vacation you and your entire family opt out of swimming. Sharknado ran on TV last week. And if Sharknado has stressed anything, it is the ferocity and frequency of shark attacks. Given that recent experience, you would be nuts to dive into the sea!

Yet, the danger of a shark attack is far less than that of dying in a car crash while driving to your seaside holiday – by an order of magnitude. Sharknado doesn’t exactly stress that. Even if it did, it would not resonate in the way that dramatic attacks do.

Personal examples carry more weight for availability bias than third-party anecdotes. For example, those of us who lived through a destructive hurricane feel like every named storm is aiming for us. But, as more time elapses from that traumatic experience, we become less afraid and resume our blasé attitude. It’s no longer recent.

So, how do you combat the recency and availability biases in your own decision making? Here are some ideas, but they may not work for you. However, if you play around with them, you may be able to improve your own results.

  • When you face a decision, try to include others in developing your options. No matter many how big the pool of data you’re considering, see if you can expand it.
  • Look for information that contradicts your assumptions.
  • Once you find contradictory examples or information, assess that new information. How does it stack up against what you already believe? Does it alter the way you weight the original options?
  • Keep a decision journal. When you are making a consequential decision, document it. Include the nature of the decision, the options you see, and how you go about ultimately choosing.
  • Refer to your decision journal a few weeks or months later. Assess the options you saw and the process you used.
  • Now, looking back on the decision-making process (not the outcome), how were you weighting both your initial information and the contradictory data you collected
  • Would you use the same process, and weight the options the same today?

Hopefully, you will be able to use this information to improve your own decision-making. Bias is innate in us. Even with all our knowledge about it, we are rarely able to avoid them. But specific processes can help to reduce how much they affect us.

You and I will never transcend our humanness. But we can strive to enhance our own performance.

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