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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11

Chapter 4:  Too Much of a Good Thing

We tend to assume that the best way to solve a problem is to have perfect information and perfect calculation. But it is prediction in the face of limited information that makes our brains, well, thoughtful. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, author Malcolm Gladwell relates a situation in which prediction triumphs. Gladwell tells the story of the victory of Confederate General Robert E. Lee over Union General Joe Hooker at the battle of Chancellorsville. Hooker had the upper hand: a larger army that had been divided so that it was squeezing the Confederates in a vise. He also had infiltrated Lee’s army with spies and had an abundance of information.

But Lee sensed what Hooker was up to, and so he divided his army and quietly sent his forces into place near the Union encampment. When Hooker’s men were eating dinner, the Rebel forces descended on them, sending the Union soldiers into a rout. “It was wisdom that someone acquires after a lifetime of learning and watching and doing,” Gladwell explains. “It’s judgment . . . Lee’s ability to sense Hooker’s indecision, to act on the spur of the moment, to conjure up a battle plan that would take Hooker by surprise—his ability, in other words, to move quickly and instinctively on the field of battle—was so critical that it is what made it possible for him to defeat an army twice the size of his. Judgment matters: it is what separates winners from losers.”8 In short, Lee took advantage of his ability to predict.

Gerd Gigerenzer, who has authored numerous academic articles on prediction, offers another counterintuitive idea.9 According to Gigerenzer, intuition often arises from how little we know of something rather than how much. He notes, “Intuitions based on only one good reason tend to be accurate when one has to predict the future (or some unknown present state of affairs), when the future is difficult to foresee, and when one has only limited information.”

In other words, he says, one good reason is better than many. Less is more. And with that one good reason, notes Gigerenzer, we can get “almost unfairly easy insight.” In the case of Hooker and Lee, Hooker had the advantage in facts. He had a network of spies, and he had hot air balloons floating nearly over the Confederates’ heads. He was dead sure of himself.  “My battle plans are perfect,” he boasted. “And when I start to carry them out, may God have mercy on Bobby Lee, for I shall have none.”  Bobby Lee didn’t have the same wealth of information; in fact, he was so blissfully in the dark that Hooker managed to move seventy thousand Union troops behind him without his knowledge. 

What caused General Lee to prevail? According to Gladwell, Lee had the blink mojo working for him—the instinct to react fast, move swiftly, and push the element of surprise back on Hooker. Or, as Gigerenzer would argue, Lee had just enough information and nothing more. Lee didn’t need spies and hot air balloons circling the battlefield; he had patterns in his head that predicted the path to take. In World War II, Dwight Eisenhower could be said to have done the same thing: faced with the complexities of D-Day, with the weather deteriorating and the bold invasion of Europe possibly already detected, he made a decision with limited information, and the decision was to go.

We see this kind of decision making play out every day. Some executives become victims of analysis paralysis, thinking they need to weigh every bit of information against all possible outcomes.  Those executives rarely make it very far. In contrast, other executives make quick decisions, based on limited information, using the brain’s implicit ability to predict the best path.

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© 2009 Jeffrey M. Stibel, Wired for Thought™ published by:

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