EO 24/7 Day 1
November 18, 2019
A deep dive into how the mind works can help you avoid potential business disasters.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, author of Never Go With Your Gut, and a recent EO 360° podcast guest, empowers leaders to avoid business disasters by addressing potential threats, maximizing unexpected opportunities, and resolving persistent personnel problems. Dr. Tsipursky offers his expertise on the benefits of understanding the two disparate thinking systems our minds employ in making everyday decisions.
Successful entrepreneurs know that we can control only three things in life: our thoughts, our feelings and our behaviors. If we can take charge over these deceptively simple-sounding factors, we position ourselves to lead organizations—and our own lives—to achieve our vision of success.
That vision differs among successful entrepreneurs; some want to grow their startups into huge companies, while others want to stay small and maintain a family atmosphere. Regardless of how you view success, to achieve it you must invest in understanding how your mind works. Then, you must direct your thinking and feeling patterns–and the behaviors that result from them—towards clearly evaluating reality, making the wisest decisions, and accomplishing your goals.
Understanding the mind
So, how do our minds work? Intuitively, the mind feels like a cohesive whole. We perceive ourselves as intentional and rational thinkers. Yet cognitive science research shows that, in reality, the intentional part of the mind is like a little rider on top of a huge elephant of emotions and intuitions.
In broad terms, we have two thinking systems. Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the Nobel prize for his research on behavioral economics, calls them System 1 and 2. For our purposes, autopilot system and intentional system are useful descriptors.
Thinking System 1: The Autopilot System
The autopilot system corresponds to our emotions and intuitions. Its cognitive processes take place mainly in the amygdala and other parts of the brain that developed early in our evolution. This system guides our daily habits, helps us make snap decisions, and reacts instantly to dangerous life-and-death situations—like a hungry saber-toothed tiger—through the fight-or-flight stress response. While this response was a great help for survival in the past, the fight-or-flight response is not a perfect fit for modern life.
We encounter many small stresses in our work that are not life-threatening, but the autopilot system treats them as saber-toothed tigers. That produces an unnecessarily stressful daily life experience that undermines our mental and physical well-being. Moreover, while the snap judgments resulting from intuitions and emotions usually feel right because they are fast and powerful, they often lead us wrong in predictable ways.
For example, we make bad hires if we rely on our autopilot system. The autopilot system leads us to make overly optimistic plans and ignore weaknesses and threats in our businesses. It makes us prone to errors when negotiating with others, in mergers and acquisitions, and in assessing company performance.
Entrepreneurs must learn to avoid simply trusting their gut, which helps them address autopilot system errors.
Thinking System 2: The Intentional System
By contrast, the intentional system reflects our rational thinking, and centers around the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that evolved more recently as humans started to live within larger social groups. This thinking system helps us handle more complex mental activities, such as managing individual and group relationships, logical reasoning, probabilistic thinking, and learning new information and patterns of thinking and behavior. Notice how the activities controlled by the intentional system correspond to the mental resources necessary for entrepreneurs to succeed.
While the automatic system requires no conscious effort to function, the intentional system takes deliberate effort to turn on and is mentally tiring. Fortunately, with enough motivation and appropriate training, the intentional system can turn on in situations where the autopilot system is prone to making errors—especially costly ones.
Autopilot vs. Intentional Thinking
The autopilot system, based on emotions and intuition, is like an elephant. It’s by far the more powerful and predominant of our two thinking systems. Our emotions can often overwhelm our ability to think rationally.
Moreover, intuitions and habits determine the large majority of our life, which we spend in autopilot mode. And that’s not a bad thing–it would be mentally exhausting to think intentionally about our every action and decision.
The intentional system is like an elephant’s rider. It can guide the elephant deliberately to go in a direction that matches our actual goals. It can help you address the systematic and predictable errors that we make due to how our brain is wired, what scholars term cognitive biases. Over 100 cognitive biases exist, and more are found all the time by scholars in behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience.
Fortunately, recent research in these fields shows how you can use pragmatic strategies to notice and address these dangerous judgment errors. The elephant part of the brain—which is most prone to cognitive biases—is huge and unwieldy, slow to turn and change, and stampedes at threats.
But we can train the elephant. You, as its rider, can become an elephant whisperer. Over time, you can use the intentional system to change your automatic thinking, feeling and behavior patterns, and reach true success!
Additional posts on the value of starting with yourself to achieve success: