Monday, 23 January 2012

Bikes, cars and heuristics

On Friday, I was hit by a car. Actually I got hit by the door of a car. That's not the point of this article. The point is what happened next.

Daniel Kahnemann
Most people when confronted with a situation like that would react according to a heuristic. Heuristics are rules of thumb, and they were studied in detail in the 1970s by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann in their groundbreaking work.

Heuristics make many decisions in life a lot easier. If you didn't have a heuristic for  putting your clothes on, there are so many possible combinations that you'd never get out of the house on time.

So when I landed on the ground, with various amounts of pain, most people would have a heuristic to handle it. But my brain doesn't work that way. I'm an analyst, so in a situation that I'm not familiar with, my brain started to piece together what had happened and what comes next.

Focus on what's most important

The range of issues my brain started to consider was rather broad. Message for the future: there is a time and place for broad thinking and a time and place for narrow thinking. This was the latter.

Rather than just focusing on exchanging contact details and going home or to a hospital, my brain started thinking about a whole raft of less important items. As a result - it got stuck!

When heuristics go wrong

By now, if you are a person who makes great snap decisions, you are patting yourself on the back. Unfortunately, Tversky & Kahnemann's research found that heuristics can go badly wrong. Luckily for me, with more complex processes, it seems my brain is well suited to breaking down a problem into its component parts and putting it back together in a sequential order that works.

So how did it all turn out?

Thankfully, my nearest and dearest is very good with heuristics and took my to the local hospital where I got well taken care of.

The moral of the story: If you're not strong in a thinking style, find someone who is. 

 Let me know what you think

Mark S

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