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How our instinct can deceive us


In this blog I explore why it’s so important to slow down and examine our emotions, and those of people around us.

Making decisions based on gut instinct

Research over the last 20 years increasingly suggests we perceive our decision making processes to be dominated by logic, when in fact the way we tend to problem solve and reach conclusions is firstly out of instinct, and then through engaging our analytical side to justify our decisions. Malcolm Gladwell turned this topic into a whole book called ‘Blink’

The problem with this decision making process, is that our gut instinct is primed by our ancestral reptilian brain, our upbringing, current stress levels and how we are primed at every moment by environmental factors. Once we have made a decision based on gut instinct and backed it up with thought it’s very difficult for us to change our attitudes – they become entrenched. In order to win friends and influence people it’s vital to appeal to their emotional side to have half a chance of getting them to see your point of view. It’s even better if you can train yourself to be dispassionate about your view point and strive to see things from theirs – in this way, through dialogue, we often find there is a view of the world that lies between us which is a more perfect representation of truth.

How reasoning can be tricked

As small children, we explore the world through our likes and dislikes. In Yoga and Buddhism these early likes and dislikes are described as seeds, or samskaras. According to these traditions, samskaras are embedded experiences that we are born with from past lives. Western psychology agrees that we are born with tendencies or personality types – for example a tendency to be open or closed, agreeable or not etc. We are not born blank slates. As we develop these seeds ripen according to the environment that we grow up in. They are watered with love or hatred, kindness or cruelty.

In the eastern traditions, there are infinite seeds of possibility but we have tendencies to develop in one way or another. In addition to these seeds children adopt the traditions and morals of their parents and peers. We have a tendency to quickly assimilate information from our surroundings about the way society accepts is the “right” way to proceed in life. These samskaras and later learned social behaviours are often buried deeply within our subconscious. At a basic primal level they direct many (if not all) of our behaviours. We bury this stuff deep because in order to function in a fast moving, information packed world, we simply don’t have time to reflect on every decision that we are faced with. Automatic processing is a vital part of being human. We have to rely on gut instincts, but sometimes these gut instincts lead us in a direction that if we stopped and thought for a while, make little sense.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of the rider and the elephant to explore this idea. Simplistically (although it is obviously way more complex than this), the elephant is the intuitive/emotional response part of our reasoning processes and the rider the analytical part.

The following fascinating bits of research demonstrate how easily how instinct can be influenced :

– What the elephant eats and drinks changes the way we think and act – In 2011 participants in a study were asked a series of moral dilemma type questions – for example, should cousins be allowed to marry? What are good time limits for abortions? etc. Prior to being asked the questions, half the group were given a bitter tasting drink and half, a sweet tasting drink – you guessed it! The bitter drink tasters responded to the questions in a more moralistic manner. The elephant was primed to react in a certain way through drink – bitter, don’t like, shouldn’t, don’t do that(Eskine, Kacinic, Prinz 2011) and the others, responded in a more thoughtful and analytic way.

– What the elephant touches, changes the way we think and act – In one study participants who were asked to wash their hands prior to the study gave answers which were more moralistic. – I’m clean, you should be too, behave in a morally upstanding way. (Chenbo Zhong at uni of Toronto 2010) .

– What the elephant smells changes the way we think and act – In another study participants who were exposed to fart smells also gave answers which indicated “higher” or more conservative moral standards – that’s disgusting, I’m experiencing disgust, I’m expecting to be disgusted, that moral dilemma scenario disgusts me, this is my reaction……….

– What the elephant sees changes the way we think and act – In trials, juries are more likely to acquit attractive people and judges give leaner sentences – you look cute, I like you, I’m expecting good things from you, there must be a reason you did what you did. In US elections to the Senate and House of Representatives, those judged most competent according to their pictures won their elections in two thirds of cases – You look dependable, I trust you to do the right thing, You have my vote…. In his research Todorov, found that these gut decisions about looks and competency are made in about 1/10th of a second

– What the elephant hears changes the way we think and act – Priming words set expectations that can confuse us! For example, if you link of a series of words in pairs such as sunshine, prolife, happiness, cancer, love, slug etc certain pairings lead us to confusion. For example we read sunshine and then read slug and feel disgust. It takes us a while to compute this conflicting information. It also depends on our deeply held political views. For example, conservatives view ‘prolife’ as a positive term, liberals, a negative infringement of the right of the mother. Link these words for a conservative and they quickly decide whether they like or dislike the pairing. For a liberal the pairing leads to a different type of thinking ie. ‘I like sunshine but I don’t like the word prolife’ – the rider of the elephant becomes engaged because of confusion ! (Morries et al 2003)

In a complex world, where we often have to make difficult decisions, we should try to get the elephant and the rider considering issues together. In the early part of my career at KPMG, we were often instructed to be logical and analytical. An “emotional” response to a situation was frowned upon. There is nothing more irritating than been told to stop being emotional! But in reality, most of us, most of the time, are making little (and big) decisions based purely on gut feel – simple like/dislike triggers – These are the samskaras which have been watered with love or hate throughout our lives.

Dale Carnegie, in his book “How to win friends and influence people” was totally aware that people tend to make decisions based on these primal like/dislike urges. The elephant makes up his mind and then the rider comes up with the logic to back up that gut feel. Once we have made up a story to back up our gut feel it’s really hard to change our point of view. His advice when trying to influence someone was to “begin in a friendly way, smile, be a good listener, never directly contradict” . He was aware that you need to talk to the elephant, to understand where they are coming from. In this way, with an open heart you may also be in a position to appreciate that the truth lies through dialogue and that is probably somewhere between your points of view.

Friendly dialogue primes the elephant – he’s nice and friendly, I’m expecting to hear nice things, I’m relaxed and open to share ideas.

For those of you thinking that it would be a good idea to somehow train the mind to just be analytical – for the rider to take control and analyse each situation, Antonio Damasio’s research gives the strongest business case for emotional intelligence coaching there is. He studied people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex . People damaged in this area are unable to feel emotions such as joy from beautiful images or horror when shown pictures of gruesome murders. Without feeling, these people were paralysed by indecision. Each of the thousands of choices they had to make every day had to be analytically reviewed. These people made terrible life choices.

Research in this area suggests that although we make very quick gut decisions. These decisions can be reversed if we alternate view points from other people. However we need to absorb and reflect on these alternatives. Participants in a study who were provided with arguments against their decision were more likely to change their minds about a topic if they were given a couple of minutes to consider alternatives – so occasionally we need to sit down and reappraise what our default view of the world is.

 Emotional intelligence and yoga

This is what emotional intelligence coaching and yoga does. The practices help you slow the world down and observe your habitual patterns. Yoga also helps you maintain a calm balanced view of the world – Its hard to listen to what your gut is telling you if you are so stressed that your flight or fight mechanism is making every part of your body ache and grumble.

In the next blog I’m going to explore how yoga helps you re-appraise your habitual responses to situations. In the meantime, at work consider your interactions with colleagues and how in order to persuade and influence, you need to have a chat with the elephant in the room.

Emotional intelligence development – engaging the rider and the elephant

To take the MSCEIT emotional intelligence test and take part in our 30 day programme to develop your emotional intelligence email me back and I will send you login and payment details. The programme includes two online psychometric tests (a month a part) , two private and confidential feedback sessions, two group sessions and a 30 day programme to develop skills. 250 (UK pounds) or approximately 370 (Australian dollars) per person