Gut feel: Irrationality or Beyond Rationality?

The Group CEO of one of my past employers was one for hard numbers. One of the phrases, attributed to him and apparently said by him during a business review meeting, has stuck with me: “And how do we know how much money we will make? Shall we say your gut feel plus my gut feel divided by two?” The “Rationality Project” is what Professor Deborah Stone calls this focus on rationality and positional bargaining in her seminal book on political decision making. Many others have admitted, sometimes hesitatingly, the problems of the ontological assumptions underlying a rationality focus in organisational decision making.

In the last few years of researching in organisational decision-making and testing some models in a public health policy context, I have come to admire – and accept, which was not easy for a rationalist like me – the inevitable limits of rationality.

But the search for alternative paradigms of thinking and problem-solving is still on. The political paradigm – where power imbalances drive agendas, coalition-forming and ultimately strategic choices made from a set of alternatives – was proposed as an alternative but it was not further from the determinism inherent in rationality-driven approaches.

So what next? Gut feel?

Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink‘ can not be said to have invented the concept of gut feel, but, if one goes by the numbers, who bought it and hopefully read it, the book surely did a good job of legitimising gut feel as a ‘decision making’ aid. Through thin-slicing, he suggested, our unconscious mind deals more rapidly with the core issue, rejecting all the accompanying yet irrelevant information, providing us clear answers more swiftly than protracted rational thinking might do.

In his book, Gladwell talks of Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, a German social psychologist and Director of the Max Planck Institute’s Centre for Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition. Professor Gigerenzer has now written his own book, titled ‘Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious‘. You can read an interesting interview with Professor Gigerenzer here.

My gut feel says I should try and read this book just as I am trying to finish the last draft of the thesis. My rationality says ‘Postpone!’. I think I shall choose the latter, put the book’s name on a pink Post-It (TM) and stick it on the wall to the side of my study table.

Why? Well, I must heed to my stronger gut feeling which says ‘If you do not finish the thesis in time, the University will throw you out’, which rationally, would be such a shame after such a long time dedicated to understanding decision making.

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