If I were to ask you a relatively simple mathematical question, how confident are you that you could answer it quickly?  Let’s start with the easiest question imaginable “what does two multiplied by two equal?”  Unless you thought there could be a trick in it, the answer should have been instant.  But what if it were a little more complex, such as, “A bat and a ball sold together cost 1EUR and 10 cents, if the bat costs 1 Euro more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?”

If you answered this question instantly and had never heard it before, then there is a very good chance that you got it wrong. In controlled trials, over half the students of Princeton University got it wrong too!  The simple truth is that the more confident you are, the far more likely you are to think too fast and to jump to erroneous assumptions (and no, ‘10 cents’ is not the correct answer)!

Professor and Nobel Lauriat, Daniel Kahneman has spent the last forty five years studying behavioural economics and the psychology of judgment and decision-making. His latest book ‘Thinking fast and slow’ is an inspiring collection of his thoughts and findings, culminating in observations on how our assumptions can wildly lead us down the wrong path.

However, the main point I want to make this week is that the old saying ‘the fast will be slow and the slow will be fast’, is very true in business.  If you are like me and have a tendency for fast thinking, then unless you have someone close to you that you respect deeply that does not simply agree with everything that comes out your mouth, and is prepared to take the time to consider and think carefully before they answer, then you can be vulnerable to all sorts of fast thinking pitfalls. A balance is essential.

It is not the case that fast thinkers cannot, or do not, sometimes think slowly. Most people can switch between the two. It’s just that the combination of outward confidence and fast thinking can in some circumstances be very dangerous. Experience teaches us the warning signs to look out for, but they are not always reliable, especially in complex decision making.

Over lunch last week, my lawyer gave me another ‘bat and ball’ type mathematical problem to try out on the students in my ‘Complex problem solving classes’. “If a car travels from A to B at an average speed of 60km per hour and then travels back from B to A again at an average speed of 90kms per hour, what is its overall average speed?”  (and no it is not 75km per hour!)

Have a good week,