by Frank Muller
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The Wall Street Journal published an article discussing some of the latest research on decision making. In this study, researchers examined the behavior of a group of six- and nine-month-old babies. Using pictures of both large and small groups of people, the study arranged these images to convey a progression of events to the infants.
For example, one image showed four people on one side of a bridge and two on the other. The next picture showed one of the two people crossing the bridge back toward the other four. The researchers then recorded the reactions of each baby.
The study revealed something deeply primal about the expectations and decision-making assumptions of human beings. The babies demonstrated surprise when the group with only one person crossed the bridge first. They were further surprised that this person also came from the smaller group.
The implications of this reaction are that, even at a tender age, we humans associate decision making and power with the larger crowd we see (whilst ignoring the myriad of other crowds). Even if the two people on one side were much smaller than the four people on the other side, the babies still expected the group with larger numbers to win out.
So, how much of our decision making is instinctive and how much is a conscious act? Is going against the crowd really that difficult? The answer appears to be yes. Thus, we may be left with the hopeless belief that our instincts can often overrule our conscious minds. Or we can understand these instinctive impulses for what they are and make a dedicated attempt to counter our knee-jerk decisions and beliefs with conscious choices.
In the investment world, we see a mountain of evidence that documents this herd mentality and the devastating effect it has on wealth creation and preservation. Despite decades of warning about the hazards of this human condition, investor acceptance of it is still extremely modest. Wouldn’t it be more rational at this point to realize that it’s time to try a different approach and choose the road less traveled?
If anyone acts as a financial mentor, perhaps we should be teaching our friends to consciously embrace the disciplines of effective decision making and self-awareness. Going against instinct and consciously choosing to be different are often the attributes of highly successful people. For thousands of years, we were rewarded materially by going with the crowd.
However, spiritually and culturally it is clear that the vast history of humanity has long been a story of great sin and evil. But in the modern world, following that evolutionary instinct is increasingly an impediment to material success and it is staying just as destructive of souls, culture and society.
Self-awareness allows us to keep our impulses in check. Effective decision making is a scientific process of formulating ideas and testing them against the problem until a solution is found—and constantly refining this solution over time to increase success.
In the spiritual and cultural realms, this effect can have even more profound consequences. We simply fear groups we do not understand, are different from ours, or just plain do not even want to meet new people. This traps people into a cycle of convenient truths as not reaching out to folks of different belief traditions, social habits, wealth status…. are ways of imprisoning us to a convenient truth but perhaps at the price of never knowing the inconvenient Truth.
We are often willing to evangelize someone else who we think is in error but are absolutely unwilling to even remotely consider the fact we ourselves may be partially or wholly wrong in our own beliefs. Being open to discovering new ideas does not always mean giving up our truths. What it means is that if the evidence cannot be contradicted then we are obliged to cede to that Truth. If we are unable to do so, then we accept the lie as our lie and when that happens, we are deprived of the freedom that Truth can bring.
If we condition ourselves to embrace a relentless search for Truth (and that means admitting we are often wrong), we then learn that the sacrifice is only letting go of a previous error and thus we are improved. When we ignore this continual process of seeking out different perspectives from ours and learning to work together with those people, we not only may help one another seek the Truth of a thing but in fact we ourselves may see a new Truth and we must change. There is no loser, only winners when two people are willing to set aside a previously held view if the Truth cannot be refuted.
This seeking of the smaller crowd that our brain and our emotions try to keep us away from can moderate our own impulsive decision making and learn thus to navigate the road less traveled. The road less travelled leads to a life of growth. The road well-travelled ends up in only one place and wo’ to us all who find out at the end of the race we are lost and not where we wanted to be.