My friend Susanne and I were recently playing a trivia game. She’s pretty good with the trivia. However, at one point, she got a couple wrong answers in row. “Urgh,” she blurted out, “every time I have a gut answer and change it, it was actually correct.”
This made me curious. Malcolm Gladwell, in the book Blink, said that we make our best decisions in a blink of an eye. Was this true in Susanne’s case? Or was her mind playing tricks on her? To test this out, we did a little – admittedly unscientific – experiment.
We turned to a set of trivia questions where you had to guess the year that different events took place. For example, the year President Ford survived two assassination attempts (1975), or the year Pete Rose set a National League consecutive game hitting streak record of 44 (1978).
For our experiment, we took 10 questions. I would read her the name of an event (like the signing of the SALT II treaty) and Susanne would instantaneously give me her “gut” answer. I marked down her answer as she proceeded to use analysis and a bit of time to come up with a final “logical” answer. In this case, the correct answer is 1979.
Out of 10 questions:
- One of her “gut” answers was closer than her “logical” answer – but only by one year.
- Four responses were unchanged after applying further reasoning. This means that 40% of the time, her “gut” answer and “logical” answer were the same.
- Five times, when she changed her “gut” response, her “logical” answer proved to be closer to the real date, often significantly closer.
What does this mean? Well, given that our study was not statistically valid, not much. However, it does point out an interesting phenomenon. Humans get attached to things such as our gut responses. When we change a gut answer that was correct and give a final answer that is wrong, we kick ourselves. However, we are much less likely to remember the situations where our gut answer was wrong and our final answer was correct.
I have seen this concept in action in other places too, such as gambling.
I like blackjack because it is a game of probability – and only probability. I find it interesting that so many people are superstitious and have illogical beliefs. One time I was at the blackjack table with my friend, Gary. In total, there were five of us at the table. One of the other players was quite a beginner. In fact, he stunk! We nicknamed him “Stinkie.” He would take cards (a hit) when he clearly should not. And he would stand when almost any other player would hit. As expected, he lost a lot of hands, and a lot of money. That is expected and not very interesting.
The interesting part is that Gary became quite agitated. He was convinced that Stinkie was negatively affecting HIS hands. For example, on one hand, Stinkie took a card when he should certainly have stayed. The card he got was the one Gary wanted, and as a result Gary lost. During another hand, the beginner stayed when he should have taken a card. The card that would have helped the beginner in fact helped the dealer, and everyone at the table lost.
Tempers were flaring. The other players would like to have switched tables, but the casino was crowded and there were no other seats available. Instead, everyone wanted to lynch the beginner – or at least convince him to leave. I was amused by these violent reactions. From my perspective the beginner had NO impact on my winnings – probabilistically speaking. Everyone noticed the times when the beginner’s actions caused them to lose. But they NEVER noticed the times when his actions helped them win. NEVER.
That evening, Gary was still convinced he lost money because of Stinkie. I tried to convince him that this bad player – purely from a probabilistic perspective – had no impact on him or the other players. He was not convinced. So I decided to put together a little experiment. I created a game that accurately simulated hundreds of hands of blackjack. For every hand, we kept track of whether the bad player’s actions impacted the other player. After 200 hands, approximately 50% of the time, the bad player had no impact on the other player. 25% of the time the bad player hurt the other player. And 25% of the time, the bad player actually helped the other player – they won when they otherwise would have lost.
It is interesting how human nature compels us to fixate on what we lose rather than what we gain.
I remember hearing about a study done with college students who were given a multiple choice exam. The test administrators developed it in such a way that they could track when a student changed an answer.
After the students received their results, the examiner asked if, when the student changed a particular answer, whether they believed that their first answer was correct more often or not. Nearly all of the students believed that their first answers, or “gut” answers, were in fact correct, and that when they changed their response they more often got it wrong. This was similar to Susanne’s initial belief.
However, the study showed that the students’ final answers were more often correct than their gut answers – by a wide margin.
Why is this so?
One of the reasons is attachment. When we have something and lose it, we notice it more than if we gain something we never had. Studies show that investors who own a particular stock are likely to hold on to it. However, if they did not already own the stock, it is unlikely they would purchase it.
What does this mean for you?
Take a look at what you have in your life. Are you holding on to it just because you already have it? Do you operate from a fear of losing what you already have? Do you play small because you prefer “the devil you know than the devil you don’t?” If so, be aware that this attitude prevents you from taking risks and living the life you want. It stifles creativity, passion, and true success.
Take an inventory of your life: your belongings, your job, your friends, and your relationships.
If you were to design your life from scratch, would you seek out these things and people? Or, would you make different choices?
Go through your house and eliminate as much as you can. If you read Goal-Free Living, you know that I once fit everything I owned into a few boxes and moved apartments in the back of a taxi with just 2 trips. Have a garage sale. Sell everything on eBay (my friend Lynn Dralle is an eBay expert). Or give everything to Goodwill and receive a tax write-off. This will generate some cash. More importantly, you will find this house cleaning frees you up immensely. Fewer possessions means fewer things to worry about losing or breaking, and ultimately, fewer attachments.
Take a look at your job. Do you love your job? Or are you there mainly because it is easier to stay put than explore new options? One friend once told me, “I would do something different if only I could figure out what I wanted to do.” That was his problem. He was intellectualizing his interests, rather than experiencing them. My suggestion? Join various organizations. Go to networking meetings with the idea of learning about what others do. Meet knew people. Doing these things, he found his new career, and you can do the same. Treat the process of exploration as a game.
Finally, take a brutally honest look at your relationships. Are people still in your life because they truly nurture you? Or have they just been there all along? If a relationship or friendship is not working, do something about it. Either improve the relationship, or (as Susanne would say) give the person to Goodwill. Sorry, no tax write-offs for donating a dud relationship.
Consider this for a moment: What if losing your current existence – everything that you own and have – turned out to be the greatest thing that could happen to you? Ponder it. Play with it. With this blank sheet of paper in mind, now add back in the pieces that you really want – not just because they have always been there, but because you really want them. What would your new life look like?
Yes, you want to appreciate the life you currently have (aka “want what you have”). But don’t use this as an excuse for staying where you are. Goal-Free Living is about moving in new directions and experiencing new opportunities – without attachment to particular outcomes. Break free from the shackles of your past – your attachment to what has been – and create a “new you.”