My friend Susanne and I were recently playing a trivia game, a game in which she excels. However, at one point, she got a couple wrong answers in row. “Urgh,” she blurted out, “every time I have a gut answer and change it, it was actually correct.”
This made me curious. Malcolm Gladwell, in the book Blink, said that we make our best decisions in a blink of an eye. Was this true in Susanne’s case? Or was her mind playing tricks on her? To test this out, we did a little—admittedly unscientific—experiment.
We turned to a set of trivia questions where you had to guess the year that different events took place, like the year President Ford survived two assassination attempts (1975), or the year Pete Rose set a National League consecutive game hitting streak record of 44 (1978).
For our experiment, we took 10 questions. I would read aloud the name of an event (like the signing of the SALT II treaty) and Susanne would instantaneously give me her “gut” answer. I marked those down She would then take a bit more time to apply some analysis and come up with a final “logical” answer. In this case, the correct answer is 1979.
Out of 10 questions:
- One of her “gut” answers was closer than her “logical” answer—but only by one year.
- Four responses were unchanged after applying further reasoning. This means that 40% of the time, her “gut” answer and “logical” answer were the same.
- Five times, when she changed her “gut” response, her “logical” answer proved to be closer to the real date, often significantly closer.
What does this mean? Well, given that our study was not statistically valid, not much. However, it does highlight an interesting point.
Humans get attached to things—in this particular case, it was Susanne’s gut responses.
Furthermore, when we change an answer that was originally correct to give a final answer that is wrong, we kick ourselves. The irony is that we are much less likely to remember the situations where our gut answer was wrong and our final answer was correct.
This correlates to a study done with college students who were given a multiple-choice exam. The test administrators developed it in such a way that they could track when a student changed an answer.
After the students received their results, the examiner asked if, when the student changed a particular answer, whether they believed that their first answer was correct more often or not. Nearly all of the students believed that their first answers, or “gut” answers, were in fact usually correct, and that when they changed their response they more often got it wrong. This was similar to Susanne’s initial belief.
However, the study showed that the students’ final answers were more often correct than their gut answers— and by a wide margin.
So why is it that these students believed that their initial reactions we more accurate?
One reason is attachment. In particular, we feel losses more powerfully than we notice gains. In fact, a recent study showed that a loss of a relationship activates the same parts of the brain that are associated with physical pain. Losses truly are painful.
The students and Susanne felt a “loss” when a correct gut answer was changed. But they barely noticed the “gain” associated with a wrong gut answer that was ultimately corrected. This is a small example of how attachment affects us, however if you really take an honest look, attachment permeates throughout our entire lives.
Human beings are like packrats. We collect everything: ideas, material possessions, and relationships. However, when packrats stumble across something new that they wish to acquire, they will drop what they are currently carrying and "trade" it for the new item. One might say that these tiny creates are free to explore the world unencumbered by the past. This is in complete contrast to what human’s do. It is rare for us to drop something once we have it. We find it difficult to let go.
What can we learn from this?
Take a look at what you have in your life. What are you attached to? Are you holding on to these things just because you already have them? Consider that these attachments may, in fact, be weighing you down and preventing you from being able to effectively operate or generate creative and fulfilling alternatives in your life. I suspect that people would love to reinvent their lives but haven’t done so because they are already invested in what they have.
How can you break free?
Take an inventory of your life: your belongings, your job, your friends, and your relationships. If you were to design your life from scratch, would you seek out these same things and people? Or, would you make different choices?
Go through your home and identify things that do not support the direction you’d like your life to take. Recognize when you are attached to items that have no particular purpose and eliminate them. Take a look at your job. Do you love it? Or are you there mainly because it is easier to stay put instead of exploring new options? Are you attached to your profession because you feel that is all you can do? This self-limiting view may be keeping you captive in a job that is preventing your true expression of happiness.
Look at your belief systems. Are you attached to these viewpoints in such a way that thwarts your ability to hear alternative perspectives that may in fact be beneficial? Instead, proactively seek out seemingly incompatible ideas to see what opens up. Don’t be overly attached to your beliefs.
Take a brutally honest look at your relationships. Are people still in your life because they truly nurture you? Or have they just been there all along? If a relationship or friendship is not working, do something about it. Either improve the relationship or move on.
Consider this for a moment: What if losing your current existence—everything that you own and have— turned out to be the greatest thing that could happen to you? Ponder it. With this blank sheet of paper in mind, now add back in the pieces that you really want—not just because they have always been there, but also because you really want them. What would your new life look like?
Yes, you want to appreciate the life you currently have. But don’t use this as an excuse for staying where you are. Move in new directions and experience new opportunities—without attachment to particular outcomes. Break free from the shackles of your past—your attachment to what has been—and create a “new you.”
Stephen Shapiro is the author of Personality Poker: The Playing Card Tool for Driving High Performance Teamwork and Innovation (Penguin Portfolio). You can read over 500 articles at SteveShapiro.com, play the free Personality Poker video game, or follow him on Twitter.