Making Decisions: More Than A Gut Instinct

Decisions are comprised of three parts and your gut instinct is just one piece of the puzzle.

Brain Stem

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I was watching a fascinating program on phantom limbs by VS Rachmandram where he discussed patient’s pain associated with a limb that no longer exists. The brain is tricked by using a simple box and a mirror, this makes the brain think the amputated limb is OK and the pain disappears.

This serious subject only highlights the power of the brain and that we should ignore it at our own peril.

The first part of the brain to evolve some 500 million years ago was the brain stem which controls breathing and blood pressure and then the cerebral cortex that controls the skills of logic, creativity, intuition and decision came along another 300 million years later. So the skills we use to work out and intuit the facts needed for decision making are new boys on the block and only 200 million years old.

But we talk about gut instinct and as far as I know there is no part of our brain located in any part of our intestinal tract or gut for that matter. So why do we rely on it when we have a perfectly good organ that has been 500 million years in the making?

Apparently most decisions are made-up of 1/3 knowledge, 1/3 experience, and 1/3 gut instinct.  Now this maybe urban myth but it does ring true. When we look at a visualization and purely make a decision based on this, the formula I have mentioned has to come into play. Without the underlying data, we are relying on the undiscovered by medical science part of the brain located in the gut. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes gut instinct can hit the target: but it’s really more luck than judgement and we cannot run a business purely based on luck.

In his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information Edward Tufte said.

Sometimes decorations can help editorialize about the substance of the graphic. But it's wrong to distort the data measures—the ink locating values of numbers—in order to make an editorial comment or fit a decorative scheme.

The devil is in the detail and decoration should not disguise or block access to the underlying data. There is a phrase that says “it’s just lipstick on a pig” but let’s not go one step further and gag the pig if it’s a pig we need to know sooner rather than later.

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