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24 Sep 2012

Over Thinking Decisions (Pt 2): Warning Signs

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Over Thinking Decisions

In Part I, I introduced Over Thinking (OT) referencing Ian Leslie’s article, “Non Cogito, Ergo Sum,” (Intelligent Life, May/June 2012 edition) and highlighting how it can cause erroneous decision making. This post will focus on the warning signs so we can avoid OT. There are five common ones: huge expectations, overwhelming information, area of achievement, high expectations and too much time.

Huge Consequences. The more we stand to gain or lose from a decision the greater the likelihood we will suffer from OT.

Overwhelming Information. Even though too much information can encourage indecision, when we must make a decision it encourages OT.

Area of Achievement. When the decision falls within our area of expertise, knowledge, education, experience or success, OT will tend to inflict us. As a result, “in high performance fields it’s the older and more successful performers who are most prone to choke” and causing previously excellent performers to see flattening success curves.

High Expectations. Even when consequences are minimal or the decision falls outside of our comfort zone, we are prone to OT when high expectations are placed on us. Claude Steele of Stanford University has studied the effect of expectations on academic tests and has attributed some poor results to OT.

Too Much Time. OT usually can’t occur without having the time to do it. Thus, the more time we have the more prone we are to OT.

Except for “Too Much Time,” all relate to pressure and fear. These also hinder creativity and innovation. Thus, there is a relationship between OT and these important states. Ironically, it’s often these states that help us from choking or experiencing flattened performance curves.


Other post in this series: DANGER! Over Thinking Decisions


Series Navigation<< DANGER! Over Thinking DecisionsOver Thinking Decisions (Pt 3): Antidote >>
Other posts in series: Over Thinking Decisions

2 Responses

  1. Nice post Mike,

    just thought of sharing this little experience that I often see with my way of thinking. I get into this mode of OT when I do know that I do not posses the right data to get the answer (kind of opposite to your point of overwhelming information). Hoping that OT (as I now learned from ur blog) will get me the answer that I would otherwise not be able to get… or just think – think and think when I know thinking may not be the right thing. any tips on out to get out of such unhealthy way of thinking would be appreciated..

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you for visiting and leaving your experience, Abhay. One of the simplest ways to overcome this is setting a time frame for consideration of the problem at hand. More than likely you already have an idea what the solution is. Consider this: How do you know you don’t have the right data already? Merely being able to answer this suggests we already have an idea what the answer might be. Hypotheses are similar to such states of mind.

      I would also recommend being patient in overcoming over thinking. Take time out to think about what data and other bits of information really are. They are clunky representations of reality, thus never really expressing reality totally. I don’t use this analogy often but after visiting your site it seems you would appreciate it. Consider the difference between a circle and a square. The first is reality, the second data. The circumference of the first is expressed in some form of pi, an irrational number. The second is a concrete rational number.

      Do you know how we derive the circumference of a circle which is usually expressed in some form of pi? We begin by estimating it with a square and then continuing to add sides to the square as we get polygons with increasing number of sides. As we add sides, we move closer and closer to a better estimate of the circle’s circumference. Still, no matter how many sides we add, we never come to an exact measurement of the circle. There is always something missing. That is the same with data expressing life. No matter how much data we have we will always be missing something about life.

      Now, we can rationalize this as saying we are 99.9997% accurate. But, that small part we are missing could be extremely important. After all, if we accepted such a number as truth for the whole we would be wrong. For example, with the same margin of error, we could say that our solar system is dead. It has no life. At least, 99.9997% of it has no life. So, would you say we have a dead solar system?

      The problem with OT is that we are striving for a certainty that does not exist. Thus, to overcome OT part of the challenge is to accept the perspective that no matter what we do, we will be operating with a margin of error whose impact and significance is unknown. So, even though we might think we have 99.9997% of the information, we might be missing the most significant data of all where the life of the solution exists.

      OT is nothing more than just trying to “square a circle” so it’s easy to measure. In the end, why OT doesn’t work is that we make a circle a square but still call it a circle.

      How much does this help, Abhay?

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