How should we make decisions in life? Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, a behavioral economist and cognitive neuroscientist, says that whatever you do, Never Go With Your Gut. It’s such bold advice that Dr. Tsipursky decided to make it the title of his latest book. In this interview, Dr. Tsipursky discusses his unorthodox approach and warns against the dangerous mental blindspots that lead to decisions we later regret. He generously allowed NirAndFar readers special access to the assessment on dangerous judgment errors from his new book, available here.
Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?
Gleb Tsipursky: To overcome one of the most dangerous pieces of decision-making advice: “follow your gut.”
My book empowers readers to defeat the dangerous judgment errors (called cognitive biases) that come from following your gut and lead to decision disasters in our careers and businesses. To do so, it combines cutting-edge research in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics with pragmatic real-life business case studies to help readers make the wisest and most profitable decisions.
But to give you the full story, I’d have to start with my background.
As a kid, my dad told me, with utmost conviction and absolutely no reservation, to “go with your gut.” I ended up making some really bad decisions in my professional activities, for instance wasting several years of my life pursuing a medical career.
My conviction that the omnipresent advice to “follow your gut” was hollow grew stronger as I came of age during the dotcom boom and bust and the fraudulent accounting scandals around the turn of the millennium. Seeing prominent business leaders blow through hundreds of millions in online-based businesses without effective revenue streams – Webvan, Boo.com, Pets.com – was sobering. I saw the hype that convinced investors to follow their intuitions and put all this money into dotcoms.
Even worse, I saw how the top executives of Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom used illegal accounting practices to scam investors. They must have known they would inevitably be caught, have their reputations ruined and, in many cases, go to jail. Why this seemingly irrational behavior? They were willing to follow their gut, letting their short-term fear of losing social status and being seen as failures drive terrible long-term choices.
As someone with an ethical code of utilitarianism – desiring the most good for the most number – I felt a calling to reduce suffering and improve well-being through helping business leaders and professionals avoid dangerous judgment errors. I believed that’s the best way I could apply my knowledge and skills to improve people’s lives.
NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?
GT: I’ve been surprised by many things, but perhaps the strongest surprise – and one of the most negative ones – is that many traditional methods used by leaders to try to address the weaknesses of human nature are often more harmful than helpful.
For example, consider business strategic planning assessments such as the very popular SWOT, where a group of business leaders tries to figure out the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats facing their business. The large majority of SWOT assessments fail to account for cognitive biases.
One of the most dangerous mental blindspots for business leaders performing SWOT is overconfidence bias. You might not be surprised that those who were most successful in the past are the ones who grow most overconfident. In fact, such people tend to believe themselves to not be prone to dangerous judgment errors, which is itself a mental blindspot called bias blind spot. To quote Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
A related problem is the optimism bias, our tendency to look at life through rose-colored glasses. Research shows that top leaders — whether CEOs or entrepreneur-founders — are especially likely to be excessively optimistic about their success, which harms their ability to make effective strategic plans. They tend to overvalue their skills, knowledge, and ability. Such optimism results in problems ranging from too-high earnings forecasts to paying too much when acquiring companies to bad corporate investments.
As a result, business leaders tend to list way too many strengths and opportunities and not nearly enough threats and weaknesses during SWOT. Their overconfidence and optimism biases lead them to disregard risks and overestimate rewards. Such problems apply not only to SWOT, but also to other popular strategic assessments.
It’s ironic and tragic that we put so much effort into techniques that provide false comfort and often lead to the exact business disasters that we seek to avoid by using such techniques.
NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?
GT: One big one is a meta-lesson: distance yourself from what feels comfortable in designing intentional behaviors for yourself and others. Gut reactions cause us to behave in ways that feel comfortable, but are often very dangerous for us. Our gut reactions are adapted for the savannah environment, when we lived as hunters and foragers in small tribes, not the incredibly complex, multicultural world. Thus, you need to avoid the temptation of going with what’s comfortable and assuming that what feels right is what’s actually good for you.
Instead, plan out your goals, and then design behaviors from those goals. If some behaviors go against your instincts, deliberately go further than feels intuitive to you to accomplish your goals. Otherwise, you won’t address the anchoring effect, the cognitive bias of not going far enough from our current patterns even though we think we’ve done what we needed to do.
Another big lesson is to be wary of frequently-given advice for designing their own behavior or the behavior of others. For example, many business gurus and advice columns heap praise on those leaders who make quick gut decisions — about the direction of their company, whether or not to launch a new product, which candidate to hire.
“Trust your instincts” feels very comfortable to us, and we tend to choose what’s comfortable rather than what’s true or good for us. Sadly, gurus who tell people what they want to hear and what makes them comfortable get paid the big bucks, while experts who speak uncomfortable truths usually get ignored. What would you intuitively rather hear: someone describing delicious, delightful, delectable dozen donuts or someone sharing about how to maintain your physical fitness?
“Go with your gut” is the equivalent of the dozen donuts dessert of business advice. Sure, the box of dozen donuts contains more calories than we should eat in a whole day. However, our gut wants the donuts instead of the healthy but less intuitively appealing fruit platter of not going with our intuitions. The choice that is most appealing to your gut is often the worst decision for your bottom line, just like the donuts are much more intuitively desirable than a fruit tray, but are the worst choice for your waistline. Too often, we choose an attractive dessert (or a business option) that we later regret (myself included).
NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?
GT: I had to learn the hard way that I need more breaks than I intuitively feel I do, and a good sign for that is when I feel myself getting distracted or going off track.
Since I’m so passionate about helping folks avoid decision disasters, my gut reactions push me to be a workaholic. So I’m naturally tempted to keep working and working and working.
However, the longer I work without a break, the more my productivity suffers. I find myself unintentionally checking email and social media, reading irrelevant articles, clicking on cat pictures.
My work quality goes down as well. When I look back at the writing I did over a long stretch of uninterrupted work, I have to edit what I wrote at the tail end of the stretch of work much more than what I wrote in the early stretch.
I had to retrain my intuitions and design my behavior to learn to take breaks. Then, I go back to doing writing work refreshed.
NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?
GT: I get a lot of pushback when I insist we need to evaluate decisions more by the decision-making process than the outcome.
It’s intuitive to look at what happened as a result of a decision and judge the quality of decisions by that. Did you meet the quarterly earnings? Did you get that job? Did you make the sale? That’s what we tend to focus on in our assessments.
Yet we forget the role that luck plays in decisions and outcomes. Someone might have had a terrible decision-making process and gotten lucky. Someone else might have done everything right but had rotten luck. Focusing on outcomes over process is known as the outcome bias, one of the many cognitive biases that lead to decision disasters.
Instead, we should reward those who did the right things – who have the best decision-making process – rather than those who got lucky with a bad process. After all, good or bad luck can happen to anyone. The most anyone can do is adopt the most effective decision-making process so as to maximize our chance of good outcomes and minimize the chance of bad ones. This is a counterintuitive approach that most people disagree with, but it’s the one that gets the best outcomes over time.
NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?
GT: I have a set morning routine that really helps pave the way for my day. After I wake up and do my morning hygiene, I have a series of yoga and cardio exercises that take about 45 minutes. Then, I do about 15-30 minutes of journaling about what happened yesterday and what I learned from it, as well as setting my goals and priorities for the day. After that, I can get to doing writing and other work with a clear head and a good plan.
NE: Are you working on changing any bad habits?
I’m constantly working on keeping in check harmful intuitive tendencies. For example, I am frequently tempted to stay up too late, being a night owl by nature. Yet I often have morning commitments – coaching meetings, podcast interviews, webinars, and so on. So I strive to keep a good sleeping schedule. It helps that my wife and I have a mutual commitment of spending time together on our couch about an hour before going to sleep. That mutual commitment helps keep me honest. I struggle to maintain that good sleeping habit when I travel, though. It can be tough.
NE: What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?
GT: Well, it was certainly helpful to read Indistractable, but I guess folks who follow Nir already know about that.
One useful but simple tool has been timers. It’s too easy for me to lose track of time, such as when I’m working or when I’m staying up too late. Making a commitment to setting a timer for activities where I tend to lose track of time has really helped me manage myself better.
NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading your book?
GT: The most important – and most challenging – takeaway is that what feels most comfortable is often exactly the wrong thing for us to do. In our technologically disrupted environment, the future is never going to be like today. We have to adapt constantly to an increasingly-changing environment to ensure the success of our business and our careers. That ever-intensifying pace of change means our gut reactions – which are suited for the ancient savanna environment – will be less and less suited in the future, and relying on them will lead us to crash and burn.
The ones who survive and flourish in the world of tomorrow will recognize this paradigm shift. They will adopt counterintuitive, uncomfortable, and highly profitable techniques to avoid disasters and make the best decisions to design behaviors that address the systematic and predictable dangerous judgment errors we all tend to make. It is my fervent hope that all readers of the book do so, minimizing suffering and maximizing wellbeing for themselves and others they care about.
By Nir Eyal