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It’s Usually Better To Be Careful Than Smart

2023 August 20
by Greg Satell

Not too long ago, I had a post about the danger of trusting your feelings go viral on LinkedIn. The reason it was so popular wasn’t necessarily that everyone liked it, but because many wanted to voice their disapproval. A surprising number of people vehemently objected to the idea that they should interrogate their feelings or keep them in check.

Make no mistake. While it is true that our emotions can alert us to dangers that our rational mind fails to recognize, they can also lead us wildly astray. Our hippocampus, where our memories reside, has a bee line to our amygdala, which plays a role in governing our emotions, circumventing our rational brain in the prefrontal corpus.

We tend to assume that good judgment is a function of intelligence and education, but often it’s not. We need to recognize that there are glitches in our neural machinery and that our gut feelings can be triggered by random events as well as by people who seek to manipulate us. That’s why we need to be careful. It’s always the suckers who think they’re playing it smart.

Why Smart People Are So Easily Fooled

For decades, the global elite revered Bernie Madoff as one of the world’s most talented asset managers until it was all exposed to be, in his own words, “one big lie.” Elizabeth Holmes’s prominent board at Theranos were so clueless that they put their reputations behind a product that didn’t exist. Anna Sorokin, the daughter of a Russian truck driver, was able to convince the glitterati that she was, in fact, a fabulously wealthy heiress.

In each case, there was no shortage of opportunities to unmask the fraud. Inconsistencies in Madoff’s records were reported to regulators a number of times, but were ignored. Holmes wasn’t able to produce a single peer-reviewed study during 10 years in business to support her claims and there was no shortage of whistleblowers from inside and outside the company. Anna Sorokin left unpaid bills all over town.

Still, many bought the ruses and would interpret facts to support them. Madoff’s secrecy was seen as confirmation that he had a proprietary method. In Holmes’ case, her eccentricities were taken as evidence that she truly was a genius, in the mold of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Sorokin’s unpaid bills were seen as proof of her wealth. After all, who but the fabulously rich could be so nonchalant with money?

People should have known better. Stock market regulators are trained to recognize fraud. Prominent Theranos board members like George Shultz, David Bois and Henry Kissinger, earned their reputations over decades. Hotels allowed Sorokin to stay in luxury suites for weeks at a time before demanding payment. How could they have been so naive?

But what if smart people get taken in because they’re smart? They have a track record of seeing things others don’t, making good bets and winning big. People give them deference, come to them for advice and laugh at their jokes. They’re used to seeing things others don’t. For them, a lack of discernible evidence isn’t always a warning sign. It can be an opportunity.

Gated Community Elites And TED Talk Elites

Living in a gated community necessarily cuts you off from your surroundings. People outside can’t wander in and you can’t wander out. New businesses don’t sprout up and old ones don’t die. Routines are familiar and protected, you remain in your comfort zone and any random disturbance is immediately removed.

On the other end of the spectrum, when you go to fancy conferences your imagination becomes overstimulated. You are inundated with the new and unfamiliar. The normal human experiences begin to seem passé, a remnant of a lost age, while visions of the future begin to appear more genuine than the present reality.

The truth is that both of these environments are manufactured for the tastes of the well-heeled. Gated communities are built for those who want a simple sanctuary in a messy and complex world that doesn’t always follow a linear and understandable logic. The conference world tends to overemphasize the power of imagination and possibility, ignoring the fact that the status quo exerts a power of its own.

The best indicator of what we think and what we do is what the people around us think and do. We tend to conform to the opinions and behaviors of those around us and this effect extends out to three degrees of relationships. So not only our friends’ friends, influence us deeply, but their friends too—people that we don’t even know—affect what we think.

Confirming Our Priors

Clearly, the way we tend to self-sort ourselves into homophilic, homogeneous groups shapes how we perceive what we see and hear, but it will also affect how we access information. When a team of researchers at MIT looked into how we share information—and misinformation—with those around us. What they found was troubling.

When we’re surrounded by people who think like us, we share information more freely because we don’t expect to be rebuked. We’re also less likely to check our facts, because we know that those we are sharing the item with will be less likely to inspect it themselves. So when we’re in a filter bubble, we not only share more, we’re also more likely to share things that are not true. Greater polarization leads to greater misinformation.

We’re prone to think of our brains as biological forms of computers that take in and analyze data leading to rational conclusions. That’s not true. We tend to seize upon the most easily available information, rather than the most reliable sources. We then seek out information that confirms those beliefs and reject evidence that contradicts existing paradigms.

That’s the glitch in our mental machinery that Madoff, Holmes and Sorokin exploited. The investors in Madoff’s funds felt privileged to be allowed into an exclusive investment. Theranos board members thought they were building a better future. Sorokin made those around her feel like they had access to an aristocracy of sorts.

These weren’t mere notions or passing thoughts, but assertions of identity, which is why the shills were so eager to advocate for—and actively protect—their swindlers.

Making Allowances For The Glitches In Our Mental Machinery

We all like to have opinions and like act on them. When, for instance, people were asked if they supported bombing Agrabah, the fictional hometown of the Disney character Aladdin, 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats said yes. Yet our urge to make judgments has nothing to do with our ability to make wise choices.

Humans tend to think in terms of narratives. We like things to fit into neat patterns and fill in the gaps in our knowledge so that everything makes sense. People who are “smart,” have a greater ability to retain and process information than most and can use their imagination to build robust visions, but that’s no guarantee those visions will conform to reality.

We need to be hyper-aware that a track record of success makes us more confident and confidence in our judgments is inversely correlated to their accuracy. That’s why it’s often better to be careful than smart. There are formal processes that can help us do that, such as pre-mortems and red teams, but most of all we need to keep ourselves in check.

Perhaps most important is to appreciate that there are glitches in our mental machinery and we are greatly influenced by our social networks. The people around us tend to have access to similar information as we do and our perceptions are colored by prior judgments we’ve made. We are surrounded by mental minefields and the only way out is to proceed with caution.

There’s a sucker born every minute and they’re usually the ones who think they’re playing it smart.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an 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 and on LinkedIn.

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Photo by Edmond Dantès

One Response leave one →
  1. October 24, 2023

    Thanks for sharing it. Glad to see it.

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