The Dot Connector Series

Human Behaviour in familiar and unfamiliar situations

The multiple ways in which human beings react differently in these situations

This is a new series of posts that I am going to try and write ( hopefully there will be more than one) where I will share dots which (I think) connect.

Dots is Information which I have picked up from different places . The connection is the relationship between them that I am imagining in my head.

The connection will most likely have no other angle to them. No lesson, no argument, nothing.

It will be just a connection.

I will start with a post about familiar and unfamiliar situations or problems.

This is a new type of post so bear with me.

Choking and Panic

About ten years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “ What the dog saw” . In this book, he enlightened us by explaining the difference between choking and panicking. Till he did that we used to use them interchangeably. It was a word for what we did when the pressure got to us.

Thanks to Gladwell, we know better.

Choking happens when your autopilot suddenly stops working. There are things that you know really well. So well that you can do them without even thinking. You can do it unconsciously. Like cycling. Or the way a professional tennis player hits a forehand shot. But sometimes, in a pressure situation, (like against a difficult competitor), they start focussing and thinking too much about their forehand and suddenly they lose their instinctive feel for the game. They literally have to go back to the basics and start doing simple things with conscious effort. You lose all the muscle memory that you have developed over the years. You choke.

Panicking is the opposite. It’s the kind of failure that comes from an absence of knowledge. It happens in an unfamiliar situation. You get in a difficult spot and don’t know what to do. You’ve never practiced it before. You are driving a car and suddenly you realise that your brakes have failed . You have absolutely no clue about how to stop the car safely. It’s never happened to you before. What will you do? You will panic.

Jana Novotna famously choked in the Wimbledon finals, two games away from a title. She lost her instinct.

On the other hand, Kobe Bryant’s helicopter pilot panicked. He didn’t have the skill or the training to fly in low visibility. He didn’t know what to do.

In choking, you lose the instinct to do the familiar. In a panic situation, your instinct takes over in an unfamiliar situation.

Snap Judgements and Deliberate Decision Making

Four years before this book, Gladwell explained the snap or instinctive judgement mechanism of the human brain in his best selling book,Blink.

Basically, the brain has two decision making mechanisms.

One mechanism is conscious and rational and involves deliberate analysis. This approach is often time consuming and slow. And so, over the course of human evolution, a second and much faster system was developed by the brain. This method is superfast and unconscious where the brain makes snap judgments based on gut feelings.

This second mechanism is not random though. Deep inside the brain, unbeknownst to us, the unconscious part of the brain processes the situation in the blink of an eye and makes quick decisions. Most people are uncomfortable in trusting their snap judgement model but Gladwell argued that snap decisions were often better than deliberately analysed decisions.

There are many types of experts who can use their snap judgement effectively without being to explain how. They can just feel it.

Like, when an art expert sees a piece of art and can immediately tell that it’s a fake because he has a funny feeling about it. Or when a detective sees a case evidence and immediately senses that something doesn’t add up. Other experts include chess players, CEO’s and army commanders.

But one question remained unanswered.

When gut decisions work well?

When did snap judgements work better and when did they not? And how do you get better at making snap decisions?

This was finally answered when two rival thinkers got together.

Noted psychologist Gary Klein was the pioneer of the “experience makes us better school” . He argued that experts can instinctively recognize familiar patterns and they get better at quick decision making as they gain more experience.

His colleague and nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman studied biases in human decision making and arrived at the opposite conclusion. He argued that experience did not improve decision making. The decision making expertise was domain specific –in some experience helped but in most, especially complex ones where patterns did not repeat, repetition did not improve your expertise.

In 2009, the two gentlemen reconciled the difference in their argument. They agreed that it was the domain of work that decided whether experience improved decision making expertise or not.

The answer depended on whether the domain was a “kind “ learning environment or a “wicked” one.

In kind domains , the patterns repeat and there is a feedback loop which quickly tells you whether you were right or wrong. The variables which control the outcome are well known and their behaviour is well understood. As a result, deliberate practise makes you better. The process of repetition creates muscle memory and instinct develops. Over a period of time, you learn to operate unconsciously and your snap judgments become better than deliberate ones. Chess and Accounting are two great examples.

And then there are the wicked domains. The rules of the game are unclear and many of the control variables are either unknown or not well understood. The feedback is often delayed or not clear at all. The patterns are complex and don’t repeat. Experience of a pattern doesn’t help because most of the time you are dealing with an entirely new situation. These domains require an entirely different kind of expertise. Think of how a scientist or a researcher works.

We finally have our answer. Snap judgments work well in familiar situations which you have experienced earlier. The brain has some past data to process. But they fail when faced with unfamiliar scenarios.

Performance Pressure

This year I was finally introduced to the brilliant work of Stanford professor, the psychologist Bob Zajonc.

Zajonc solved one of the great conundrums of human behaviour

For the longest time, psychologists had been confused by the results of studies done on how a person’s performance was impacted by the presence of a crowd of spectators or a competitor performing the same task. Some studies showed clear improvement and some showed serious deterioration.

Zajonc had a hypothesis and he conducted an ingenuous experiment to prove it.

How performance got impacted depended on the complexity of the task. If the task was easy or something the participants had done many times before, the audience facilitated or improved the performance. But if it was difficult or involved learning something new, it inhibited or deteriorated performance.

Running a race was easy in front of a crowd. But for those of us, who had the company of the whole family as we tried to reverse and park the car for the first time will know how the second experience feels like.

When we compete with others or perform in front of a crowd, we want to look good and therefore try harder. As a result we experience physiological arousal. Heart beat increases , palms get sweaty etc. When there is an automatic or well learned task, these factors pump us up and get our competitive juices flowing. But when the task is complex or difficult, these factors make us anxious and we feel threatened. End up doing worse.

Familiarity vs unfamiliarity once again, ladies and gentleman.

The answer for familiar, predictable situations is very clear. It’s deliberate practise. What’s the answer for unfamiliar and complex ones?

Some of them are given in David Epstein’s fabulous book called “Range”.

I am going to write about it in great detail in the next post.

That’s it folks.

Over a period of time, I observed these different facets of human behaviour in familiar vs unfamiliar situations. They have been sitting in my head forever. So I decided to unload.

Clearly human beings do better in familiar situations. There are a whole bunch of professions which largely deal with kind or familiar problems. Accountants, surgeons, golfers, chess players. But the problem is that there is another species which is much better than us in these situations which involve repetitive, predictable patterns.

Machines and computers

And even though, unfamiliar is our weakness, we are still better off than machines.

That is the paradox of our lives today.

P. S — I love Malcolm Gladwell. He is one of the best modern day storytellers. He creates intrigue and curiosity. But don’t take his theories as the final word. They are always the opening chapter. Of something new and interesting.

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CoFounder at CaratLane