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Don’t Trust Your Feelings. They’re Often Triggers That Mislead You

2023 May 14
by Greg Satell

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt developed the metaphor of the Elephant and the Rider to describe the relationship between our emotional and cognitive brains. While the rider (representing our cognitive brain) may feel in control, it is the elephant (our emotions) that is more likely to determine which direction we will go.

That’s why it feels so good to act on our emotions. Rather than struggling with the reins to get the elephant to go where we want it to, we can just give in and race with abandon towards our destination. It’s usually not until we’ve run off a cliff that we realize that we should have exercised more restraint. By that time, it’s often too late to undo the damage.

The truth is that our brains are wired for survival, not to make rational decisions for a modern, industrialized economy. That’s why we shouldn’t blindly trust our feelings. We should see them as warning signs to proceed with caution because, while they can alert us to unseen dangers, they can also be triggers that others use to manipulate us.

The Thrill Of The Shift & Pivot

As Eric Ries explained in The Startup Way, when General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt wanted to implement a more entrepreneurial approach he asked Ries to help him implement “Lean Startup” methods at the company. The resulting program, called Fastworks, trained 80 coaches and launched a hundred projects in its first year. Pretty soon, Immelt was calling his company a 124 year-old startup.

A key ambition was the development of Predix, an industrial software platform. No longer would GE be a boring old manufacturing company, but would make a “pivot” to the digital age. It did not go well. During Immelt’s tenure, the company’s value would fall by 30%, while the broader maker more than doubled. Eventually the firm would collapse altogether.

Pundits love to tout the change gospel, but there’s little evidence that “pivots” are necessarily a good idea. Look at the world’s most valuable companies, Apple still makes most of its money on iPhones, Microsoft’s success is still rooted in business software, Alphabet’s profits come from search and so on. There are exceptions, of course, but most organizations become and stay successful by deepening their capabilities in a few key areas.

But that’s boring. Journalists rarely write cover stories about it. Business school professors don’t get tenure for writing case studies about how Procter & Gamble stuck with soap for more than a century or how Coke continues to make money off of sugary water. “Pivots,” on the other hand, are thrilling and fun. They get people talking. They feel good. That’s why they’re so popular.

The Eden Myth

Watch pundits on cable news or on stage at conferences and you may begin to notice a familiar pattern. They tell us that once there was a period when everything was pure and good, but then we—or the organization we work for—were corrupted in some way and cast out. So to return to the good times, we need to eliminate that corrupting influence.

This Eden myth is as old as history itself and it continues to thrive because it works so well.. We’re constantly inundated with scapegoats— the government, big business, tech giants, the “billionaire” class, immigrants, “woke” society—to blame for our fall from grace. The story feeds our anger and, much like the “thrill of the pivot,” makes us want to act.

Perhaps most importantly, the Eden myth makes us feel good. The outrage it triggers stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine which affects the pleasure centers in our brain. Our adrenal glands then begin to produce cortisol, which initiates a “fight or flight” response. Our senses get heightened. We feel motivated and alive.

Who wouldn’t want to feel like that? That’s why we can become addicted to the outrage-dopamine response machine and continually look for new opportunities to get our fix. We begin to need it and tune in every night, doom scroll on social media and seek out social connections that promote it. Ultimately, we’re going to want to act on it.

People who seek to manipulate us know all about this and design their approach to trigger an emotional response.

Creating An Echo Chamber

Once our neurons are primed and our senses are tuned to respond to specific stimuli, we will begin to frame what we experience in terms that reinforce those biases. Psychologists have found that we tend to overweight information that is most easily accessible and then look for information to confirm those early impressions and ignore evidence to the contrary.

These effects are multiplied by tribal tendencies. We form group identities easily, and groups tend to develop into echo chambers, which amplify common beliefs and minimize contrary information. We also tend to share more actively with people who agree with us and, without fear of questioning or rebuke, we are less likely to check that information for accuracy.

We are highly affected by what those around us think. In fact, a series of famous experiments first performed in the 1950’s, and confirmed many times since then, showed that we will conform to the opinions of those around us even if they are obviously wrong. More recent research has found that the effect extends to three degrees of social distance.

It’s likely that some version of this is what doomed Jeffrey Immelt at General Electric. When he took over as CEO in 2001, Silicon Valley was in a process of renewal after the dotcom crash. As the startup boom gathered steam, it captured the imagination of business journalists. He brought in Ries to “cast out” the old ways of plodding, industrial firms and surrounded himself with people who believed similar things. Everything must have felt right.

The elephant was in full control and the rider just went along—all the way off the cliff.

Don’t Believe Everything You Feel

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio believes we encode experiences in our bodies as somatic markers and that our emotions often alert us to things that our brains aren’t aware of. Another researcher, Joseph Ledoux, had similar findings. He pointed out that our body reacts much faster than our mind, such as when we jump out of the way of an oncoming object and only seconds later realize what happened.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman suggests that we have two modes of thinking. The first is emotive, intuitive and fast. The second is rational, deliberative and slow. Our bodies evolved to make decisions quickly in life or death situations. Our rational minds came much later and don’t automatically engage. It takes effort to bring in the second system.

There are some contexts in which we should favor system one over system two. Certain professions, such as surgeons and pilots, train for years to hone their instincts so that they will be able to react quickly and appropriately in an emergency. When we have a bad feeling about a situation, we should take it seriously and proceed with caution.

However, our feelings need to be interrogated, especially in areas for which we do not have specific training or relevant expertise. We need to gain insight into what exactly our feelings are alerting us to and that requires us to engage our rational brain.

Yes, feelings should be taken seriously. They are often telling us that something is amiss. But they are much more reliable when they are alerting us to danger than when they are pushing us to overlook pertinent facts and proceed with a course of action. When we go with our gut, we need to make sure it’s not just because we had a bad lunch.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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