Let’s say you’re about to give an important speech to a large audience. You’re nervous and your palms start sweating. Which of the following statements is true?
I never really thought about this before I started teaching critical thinking. However, if you had asked me, I would have guessed that the first statement is right. Over the past several years, I’ve switched my position. Today, I think that the second statement is much more likely to be correct.
Each time I teach critical thinking, some students tell me that they’ve seen the light. From now on, they will ignore their emotions and make decisions based solely on logic and critical thinking. They will emulate Mr. Spock on Star Trek. In my opinion, that’s the wrong thing to do.
Our emotions are a source of information. They tell us something. What they tell us is not always clear. Further, it’s not always correct. But they are worth listening to. In fact, I now think of intuition as the body communicating to the brain, through mechanisms like sweaty palms, shallow breathing, shortness of breath, and so on. Our bodies sense our surroundings and communicate information to the brain.
According to Susan David, a professor at Harvard, our emotions can help us clarify our values – but only if we listen to them. In a recent HBR Management Tip of The Day, she writes: “Our emotions are signals that can give us data about what is important to us, but only if we pay attention. Next time you feel emotional at work, take a step back and consider what it’s telling you.” (Literally taking a step back can help you see your options more clearly, too).
She then goes on to explain how emotions can help us understand our core priorities. She suggests that we can’t get to those core priorities solely by thinking – we need to tune in to our emotions. The Heath brothers, in their book, Decisive, also emphasize the need to identify core priorities and offer some tips on how to do it. Between David and the Heaths, you can identify your priorities and learn ways to focus on them.
I’d suggest that you treat your emotions as just another information source. Treat the information that comes through the “emotion channel” just the same as any other information. Evaluate it in the same way as any other piece of information, using the same go-to questions and evaluation processes. Your emotions may be right or they may be wrong. But they’re always worth listening to.
When I was climbing mountains regularly, I thought I had pretty good intuition. Even if I didn’t know quite why I was making a decision, I generally made pretty good decisions. I usually made conservative as opposed to risky decisions. Intuitively, I could reasonably judge whether a decision was too conservative, too risky, or just right.
When I was an executive, on the other hand, my intuition for business decisions was not especially good. I didn’t have a “feel” for the situation. In the mountains, I could “fly by the seat of my pants.” In the executive suite I needed reams and reams of analysis. I couldn’t even tell whether a decision was conservative or risky – it depended on how you defined the terms. As a businessman, I often longed for the certainty and confidence I felt in the mountains.
What’s the difference between the two environments? The mountains were kind; the executive suite was wicked.
The concepts of “kind” and “wicked” come from Robin Hogarth’s book, Educating Intuition. Hogarth’s central idea is that we can teach ourselves to become more intuitive and more insightful. We have some control over the process, but the environment – whether kind or wicked — also plays a critical role.
Where does intuition come from? I wasn’t born with the ability to make good decisions in the mountains. I must have learned it from my experiences and from my teachers. I never set a goal to become more intuitive. My goal was simply to enjoy myself safely in wilderness environments. Creating an intuitive sense of the wilderness was merely a byproduct.
But why would I be better at wilderness intuition than at business intuition? According to Hogarth, it has to do with the nature, quality, and speed of the feedback.
In the mountains, I often got immediate feedback on my decisions. I could tell within a few minutes whether I had made a good decision or not. At most, I had to wait for a day or two. The feedback was also unambiguous. I knew whether I had gotten it right or not.
In a certain way, however, mountain decisions were difficult to evaluate. The act of making a decision meant that I couldn’t make comparisons. Let’s say I chose Trail A as opposed to Trail B. Let’s also assume that Trail A led directly to the summit with minimal obstacles. I might conclude that I had made a good decision. But did I? Trail B might have been even better.
So, in Hogarth’s terminology, mountain decision-making was kind in that it was clear, quick, and unambiguous. It was less kind in that making one decision eliminated the possibility of making useful comparisons. Compare this, for instance, to predicting that it will rain tomorrow. Making the prediction doesn’t, in any way, reduce the quality of the feedback.
Now compare the mountain environment to the business environment. The business world is truly wicked. I might not get feedback for months or years. In the meantime, I may have made many other decisions that might influence the outcome.
The feedback is ambiguous as well. Let’s say that we achieve good results. Was that because of the decision I made or because of some extraneous, or even random factors? And, like Trail A versus Trail B, choosing one course of action eliminates the possibility of making meaningful comparison.
It’s no wonder that I had better intuition in the mountains than in the executive suite. With the exception of the Trail A/Trail B issue, the mountains are a kind environment. The business world, on the other hand, offers thoroughly wicked feedback.
Could I ever develop solid intuition in the wicked world of business? Maybe. I’ll write more on how to train your intuition in the near future.
How much does your body affect your brain? A lot more than we might have guessed even just a few years ago. The general concept — known as embodied cognition – holds that the body and the brain are one system, not two. (Sorry, Descartes). What the body is doing affects what the brain is thinking.
The power pose – want to perform better in an upcoming job interview? Just before the interview, strike a power pose for two minutes. Your testosterone will go up and your cortisol will go down. You’ll be more confident and assertive and knock ’em dead in the interview. Amy Cuddy explains it all in the second most-watched TED video ever.
Willpower, dissension, and glucose – If you run ten miles, you’ll deplete your energy reserves. You may need to relax and refuel before taking up a new physical challenge. Does the same thing happen with willpower? Apparently so. If you resist the temptation to smoke a cigarette, you’ll have less willpower left to resist eating a donut. You can use up willpower just like you use up physical power. Perhaps that’s why you’re more likely to argue with your spouse when your glucose levels are low. If you sip a glass of lemonade, you might just avoid the argument altogether.
Musicians have better memories – experiments at the University of Texas suggest that professional musicians have better short- and long-term memories than the rest of us. For short-term memory (working memory), the musicians are better at both verbal and pictorial recall. For long-term memory, they’re better at pictorial recall. Maybe we should invest more in musical education.
How you walk affects your mood – as the Scientific American points out, “A good mood may put a spring in your step. But the opposite can work too: purposefully putting a spring in your step can improve your mood.” As Science Daily points out, the opposite is also true. If you walk with slumped shoulders and head down, you’ll eventually get grumpy. Your Mom was right: standing up straight actually does affect your mood and performance.
Intuition may just be your body talking to you – when you get nervous, your palms may start to sweat. Your mood is affecting your body, right? Well, maybe it’s the other way round. Your intuition (also known as System 1) senses that something is amiss. It needs to get your (System 2) attention somehow. What’s the best way? How about sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat? They’re simple, effective signaling techniques that are hard to ignore.
The power of a pencil – want to get happy? Hold a pencil in your mouth like the woman in the picture. Your facial muscles act as if they’re smiling. You may consciously realize that you’re not smiling but it doesn’t really matter – your body is doing the thinking for you.