Intuition and Lazy Questions

Intuition is often touted as the best way to make a life changing decision. We need to tune in to our gut feelings, get in touch with our inner purpose and the direction to take will become clear. But is intuition always all it is cracked up to be?

Psychologists distinguish between two types of thinking, System One and System Two.   Daniel Kahneman, in his great book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”  describes them almost as two characters inhabiting the same person since they work quite independently of each other in different parts of the brain.

System One operates mainly beyond conscious awareness, scanning the environment, making connections between what is around us and our bank of stored memory.  It is on the look out for threats or stimuli that need a response.  System One comes up with quick intuitive judgements about all our every day decisions (and many of our larger decisions as well).  Once System One has decided on an opinion or course of action, it sends signals to the body through “gut feeling”, intuition, bodily sensations and emotions.  System One can sort through many memories and emotional connections in a very short space of time, which can lead to uncannily good intuitive decision-making in areas where we have expertise and experience to draw on.  We can, however, find ourselves following System One’s directions with very little conscious thought, sometimes entirely on autopilot.

System Two is our conscious, cognitive analysis.  If you are asked to calculate 34 x 16 you will need to use System Two to work it out.  You would also use System Two to work out which is the best type of stationary to order based on costs, quality, delivery times and features.  System Two would also be pretty good at helping you build a complex spreadsheet, based on the data analysis you will need to do.  System Two is pretty good at all this logical analysis but it does not do creative, intuitive leaps very well.

System Two is often lazy, and can be easily overloaded with complexity.  This leads to all sorts of cognitive bias as we then start to default to System One again.

When we ask System Two to perform a very complex analysis, such as what career would best suit me, what school I should choose for my children or what house I should buy, it sometimes gets overloaded and defers back to System One.  System One is not very good at logical analysis, but it is great at substituting an easier question for the difficult one.  If we ask System One what career would suit us, it might substitute the easier question of “What career do people like me tend to do?” and then start sifting through the memory banks for familiar careers that appear to be inhabited by similar people.

The Brexit referendum is a good example of a very complex question which most people probably answered using System One thinking.  We might have started out trying to use logic and reason to follow the complex arguments about the impact of Brexit on the economy, but since the arguments are so complex that even economists cannot agree, most of us probably defaulted to System One thinking and substituted the easier question of “How comfortable do I feel mixing with people from other European countries?”  Having come up with an answer in System One, we then looked for logical arguments to support this answer.

System, Network, News, Connection

Here are a couple of examples from my life to illustrate:

Yoga Teacher Training

I have been investigating yoga teacher training courses recently.  I’ve visited a variety of potential teachers in the last few months to explore my options and been to some interesting and varied classes. It’s a complex decision with many factors to weigh up – cost, time commitment, quality of training, success rate of graduates, likeability of tutors, curriculum, and the thorny question of which profession body to align with.

In the end, my System Two gave up and referred back to System One, which substituted the far easier question of “How did I feel when I was in each teacher’s class?”  Well, that made the answer obvious, and so the decision is made!  Of course, System Two is now justifying it with all sorts of rational arguments for why the chosen course is actually the best course for me – the residential weekends, the style of yoga, the experience of the teachers – even though none of these features had particularly jumped out at me when I simply looked at information on the website

How to Evaluate the Performance of Our Service

And here is a work-related issue for contrast.  We are currently grappling with the complex question of how we evaluate the performance of our teams in work.  There are many factors to consider.  What data and evidence should we use? How much resource should we invest?  What framework should we use? Who really needs to know the answer and what will they do with the information?  How will this drive improvement?

The questions are complex and the answers are not obvious.  System Two should be working hard to solve this!  However, since it is so complex, it is very tempting to let System One take over.  Now, System One will never be able to solve these problems, but it can substitute an easier question, which is “How much do I enjoy doing this sort of analysis?” Since the answer is that it is not really my favourite task, System One will send this message back, and System Two will pick it up and start to create a rational answer for the harder question based on my intuitive response. I am likely to argue the case, in all good faith, for putting less of my resource into this task, and genuinely believe my own rational arguments.

Being more aware of cognitive bias and the workings of System One and System Two can help us to recognise the times where System One thinking may not be doing a great job and we need to activate our System Two thinking, even though the analysis is tough.  It can also help us to recognise when System Two has reached it’s limits, perhaps because the problem is just too complex to analyse logically, and we need to let System One and our creativity and  intuition have a go.

Sparkly Moments and Appreciative Inquiry

Traditional organisational improvement focuses on what has gone wrong – complaints, poor performance, failures – and then looks at how to improve. This is anxiety provoking for all involved and people learn to associate improvement work with negative emotions. Doing improvement work implies that something is lacking.

Appreciative Enquiry turns the traditional approach on its head, and uses questions from solution-focused coaching to find examples of where things are going well and then to amplify them. A good solution focused question could be, “Think of a time that things were going well, or customers/clients were particularly happy. What was going on then?” This helps people to focus on where things are going right, generates positive emotions so people want to do improvement work, and can lead to rapid improvements because people engage. After all, what you focus on, you tend to get more of.

A fun workshop activity to get started can be to ask everyone in the room to think of a “sparkly moment” from their working life, a moment that gave them pleasure and satisfaction. Ask them to describe it to a partner, while the partner uses active listening skills. The listener then notes down all the strengths that were described or implied by the story, and then feeds them back to the storyteller.

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I did this recently with a team of careers advisers, and took note of all the strengths that were described and turned them  into a word cloud poster. They were reminded of all the times they have been resilient, passionate, caring, proactive, determined and helpful.  The activity also reminded them of the wide range of professional skills and knowledge they have. Reminding the team of the strengths they have on a good day is feelgood exercise, and by helping them to identify more strongly with their strengths, they are being helped to amplify them.

In yoga, we sometimes choose a sankalpa before meditating or doing yoga nidra. The  Sankalpa is a intention formed with the heart and mind. Although it is a statement of a quality or situation we want to bring about, we say it to ourselves as if it has already been achieved. So we might hold the thought “I am compassionate,” “I have abundance in my life,” “I am loved,” or “I am successful,” depending on what we want in our lives. By stating it in the present tense we are acknowledging that we already have this potential inside ourselves. The sankalpa is a tool to help us focus single-mindedly and at every level of our being on the situation we want to cultivate.

Appreciative Inquiry is an organisational development approach that acknowledges that the organisation already has the potential to become whatever it needs to become. There just needs to be a strong united focus on what the organisation wants to achieve and a determination to grow. A statement of intention left sitting on someone’s hard drive is meaningless, but a statement of intention genuinely owned by the people is powerful. The seeds of improvement are already planted, we just need to find them and water them!

 

Nudging People Towards Behavioural Change

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There can be all sorts of reasons that we mind want to change someone else’s behaviour, but it’s often a frustrating task. On the whole, people carry on behaving as they have always done, unless some internal conflict causes them to change. Information by itself is not enough to change behaviour. We all know we should eat more fruit and vegetables, yet we carry on eating chocolate.

This  can be frustrating for people in the helping professions, policy makers, parents and spouses.  We can see how someone should change their behaviour for the better but we are powerless to make them change.

Fortunately there are some interesting findings about what actually does cause behaviour change, and we can use them to nudge people in the right direction. Paul Dolan has created the  MINDSPACE  model to help policy makers with problems as diverse as reducing crime and tackling obesity. These principles can equally be applied in organisations or when working with individuals.

– Maybe you are a career coach who wants to motivate a client to pursue her dreams or at least research her options thoroughly

– Maybe you are a mindfulness teacher who wants to encourage students to do a daily practice

– Or a Careers Adviser who needs a teenager to start getting up in the morning and get to training on time

– Or a teacher convincing Year 11 to start doing some revision

– Or anyone running an appointment system who wants customers to just TURN UP for their appointments.

Whatever challenge you are facing, there is something useful in this model for you. There are nine principles, and you can use MINDSPACE to help you remember them.

So, here goes….

Messenger – the person giving the message about behaviour change needs to be credible or likeable, as we are hugely influenced by who gives the messages. A role model who perceived to be similar to us will be influential, but so will a respected expert.

Incentives – we prefer to avoid losses rather then gain new things, so if you give somebody something and then attempt to take it away from them, they will value it more. That is why free trials work.  We also prefer small and immediate payoffs rather than larger payoffs in the future, so if you want to persuade someone to practice a new skill, focus on the benefit they will notice immediately.

Norms – we are stongly influenced by what other people are doing, and if in doubt we will follow the crowd. So if you want people to keep their appointments, put up a poster that says “90% of our customers keep their appointments and that helps us keep waiting times short” rather than “10% of our customers miss their appointments which makes waiting times longer”. People won’t feel bad about missing an appointment if they think everyone else is doing the same.

Defaults – we tend to go with the pre-set options unless we have a good reason not to. This is why Welsh Government have introduced a system whereby it is assumed you will donate your organs unless you actively opt out. Employers can encourage people to take up pensions by making this something that you actively have to opt out of.

Salience – we are drawn to new things and novelties, or things that seem particularly relevant to us. Presenting salads in a novel way can encourage people to eat them. Taking pupils out of school for a new experience can encourage changes.

Priming – if we are exposed to certain sensory cues, this can influence out later choices, without us having any awareness of the connection. Asking people whether they intend to do something in a survey actually makes it more likely that they will do it.  So, if you survey a year eleven group, and ask whether they intend to visit a college open day, you increase the number who actually attend.

Affect – emotional responses can override rational decision-making. If you get people into a good mood they will make more optimistic choices, while people in a bad mood will be more pessimistic. Creating a sense of hope with a teenager, for example, will make them more likely to take the risk of applying for a job or opportunity.

Commitment – once we make commitments public or write them down, we are more likely to follow through. Getting someone to write down their own action plan will increase commitment. We generally try to make our behaviour consistent with our public commitments.

Ego – If our behaviour and our beliefs about ourselves are in conflict, we will often change our behaviour, so gently drawing attention to a conflict between the two can be a great way to increase motivation to change. We like to behave in ways that allow us to maintain a positive image of ourselves and we like to believe we are more consistent than we actually are.

Is all this a bit manipulative? Well, yes it is.  We are using techniques that can alter people’s behaviour, outside their conscious awareness.

Is it unethical?  Probably not as long as we are acting in the other person’s best interests.  After all, our decisions are being influenced all the time by our perceptions  of the environment and in using the MINDSPACE principles, all we are doing is tweaking the environment to make certain decisions more likely. Is it more ethical to make a conscious decision to put fruit in the most high profile position in the canteen and nudge people towards buying it, or to leave the sweets there because that is where they have always been? I think the nudge is ethical, because it is done with the best interests of the diners at heart.

So, next time you need to persuade a student to practice, a customer to keep an appointment, a child to do their homework or a client to get out of bed in the mornings, think about how you can apply these findings!

For more reading on this subject I thoroughly recommend “Nudge” by Thaler and Sunstein.