Trust the data or trust your gut ?

In my experience of management, the more senior Alpha males become in an agency, the more they are attracted to making decisions based on gut instinct.


It is one of the gender differences that I am prepared to generalise about that is apparent to me at that level.  Men like gut instincts, and snap decisions.  The notion that any decision is better than no decision floats around the executive suite.    However as blogger Martin Zwilling writes a good decision is of course better than any decision.


The reaction to gut instinct may depend on your personal experience of course as well as your gender.  How many gut decisions have you seen go wrong, how many go right for example ?  Perhaps the signifier of a successful leader is that he or she can tell when and how to use data or evidence, and when to make a gut call, particularly when presented with very good cases on both sides of the argument.


Writer, musician and all round genius Brian Eno challenges the very notion of a gut instinct decision.


His challenge is based on a question that Wittgenstein the philosopher used to pose to his students.  You can try and answer it yourself.  You have a ribbon which you want to tie around the earth.  You’ve tied it a bit too loosely however, it is a meter too long.  The question is this.  If you could distribute the resulting slack – the extra meter – evenly around the planet so that the ribbon hovered just above the surface, how far above the surface would it be?


I was surprisingly close to the correct answer when I guessed, but then I do have some of the relevant experience of the best guessers.


Most people’s intuition lead them to an answer in the region of a minute fraction of a millimeter.  The actual answer is 16 centimeters.  It turns out that only two sorts of people intuitively get close to the answer.  Mathematicians and dress makers.  (I used to design and make my own clothes as a teenager).


Brian Eno concludes amongst other things that this indicates that gut instinct decisions are not “quasi-mystical voices from outside ourselves speaking through us but a sort of quick and dirty processing of our prior experiences which is why dress makers get it when the rest of us don’t”.


So the truth is that gut instinct decisions are an excellent idea if you have experience to base them on and a terrible idea if you don’t, so the key is to distinguish between the two each time.  How do you do this?  I would base that on evidence and data not gut instinct, but then I would wouldn’t I.



Comments are closed.