Tumbling Dice

The world is a complex place and most significant decisions aren’t truly either/or, it’s usually a lot more nuanced than that.  However that makes it complex to explain, hard to report on.  The media prefer the simplicity of a straight choice and we tend to get caught up in these arbitrary black or white choices.

We are faced with many choices daily. For many of these there are no facts to determine the best course of action, or they are of little consequence.  For such choices it’s good to simply trust your ‘gut’ instinct.  This is your sub-conscious reaction and may be based on all sorts of reasoning that happens outside of our rational consciousness.

It can be hard to tap into these instincts sometimes.  If we find ourselves stuck my family has created a useful process for tuning into our ‘gut’. We simply flip a coin, roll dice, or draw straws.  It isn’t the result of the coin toss that is interesting but the reaction to it.  If you find yourself asking for the best of three you know what your instinct is saying to you.

The danger comes when you roll the dice and are bound by the result, regardless of your gut feel.  That would indeed be stupid.

Women think I’m tasty, but they’re always tryin’ to waste me
And make me burn the candle right down,
But baby, baby, I don’t need no jewels in my crown.
‘Cause all you women is low down gamblers,
Cheatin’ like I don’t know how,
But baby, baby, there’s fever in the funk house now.
This low down bitchin’ got my poor feet a itchin’,
You know you know the duece is still wild.
Baby, I can’t stay, you got to roll me
And call me the tumblin’ dice.

The Rolling Stones



kangaroo-joey background

Families never forget.  Well ok they forget to buy milk, they forget to put the washing on and empty the dishwasher.  They don’t forget your mistakes, especially if they are considered hilarious.  I was recently (cruelly) reminded of  an incident that has brought joy to my nearest and dearest for many years.

We were walking through a wooded valley in Dorset towards the coast in a brief respite from what was proving to be a wet and windy first family camping trip.  The walking was easy, mostly downhill and I was happy and relaxed. As we approached a small town there were houses whose rear gardens backed onto the woods.  I noticed in one of the gardens a large reddy brown animal with large upright ears.  Surely it was too big to be a dog?  Then I had it, the fabulously complex pattern recognition system of my mind supplied the answer to the puzzle and with delight I blurted out  ” Look. A joey!”.

I do need to point out here that I do know there are no kangaroo’s roaming wild in Dorset, there may be the odd wallaby but in most woodlands you find deer.  Lot’s of them, and they can be tame.  We occasionally get them in our garden.  So I know what deer look like and where they might be lurking.

So why on earth did I mistake the two?  And more importantly when will my wife tire of shouting “joey!” every time we see a deer?

If you Google ‘gut instinct’ you find a huge number of articles encouraging us to trust our instincts, articles teaching us how to tune in to our instincts and a few suggesting that our instincts might be less than perfect.

The truth is that we are bombarded with sensory data and we can only focus on tiny fraction of the information available to us.  To make sense of this we filter out much of the data by focussing on what we deem to be important, then using our past experiences we make generalised models of reality.  This enables us to function at a very high level – we don’t have to worry about all of the ‘irrelevant’ material and we can focus on the important stuff.

Of course this means that no two people will experience the same event in the same way and this has consequences for the way we relate to others.  It also explains why a rational, reasonably educated Englishman blurts out “Joey!” at the sight of a deer.

For some reason my pattern recognition system came up with ‘Kangaroo’ and stopped.  It found a pattern and provided the information.  My error was to simply accept this without testing.  The problem is that this happens all the time and it is very easy to run on automatic.

Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking fast and slow” is one of the best explanations of how our gut instinct may get it wrong with lot’s of examples.  Daniel outlines two distinct systems, the fast instinctual thinking and the slower cognitive effortful thinking and suggests that we are designed to use the ‘easier’ fast thinking as much as possible and we dislike the effort that slow thinking requires.

This poses a real issue – if we challenge all of our instincts we’d never achieve anything.  Imagine driving a car and examining carefully every single piece of data – you’d never get it off the driveway.  Yet if we simply trust our gut we are likely to make a few foolish mistakes.  Usually this will cause little harm, the danger comes when we stop thinking slow about the important things.

Too many of us simply take what is given at face value without any cognitive challenge.  In a world where ‘news’ often breaks on twitter before the traditional media channels, where the untrained individual has the same voice as the expert and where we are manipulated by marketeers this feels very dangerous.

I often ask my coaching clients who are ‘stuck’ what their ‘gut instinct’ tells them.  And then we jointly explore the issue, asking the awkward questions and looking at other options.  It’s a great place to start the thought process and it frequently proves to be a poor place to end it.

To conclude: trust your gut when choosing which movie to see and ask a few insightful questions when choosing a new job.  And my gut tells me that my wife will never, ever tire of shouting “Joey!” .  For which I am grateful, it reminds me to be more challenging of myself.

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo
Skippy, Skippy
Skippy, our friend ever true

PS.  Skippy was really a wallaby, but you do need to challenge what you are being told to work that out.