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What You See Is All There Is. Assume Less, Make Smarter Decisions

Updated: Jun 23


When my son was a toddler, he discovered a version of hide-and-seek, that he played with us around the house. He was hiding behind the long curtains in our living room, standing with the back at us and facing the large window to the garden. Because he couldn't see us, he thought he was invisible. He was certain we could also not see him. The scene was very cute and always made us laugh with tears, so we played along: "Saaaam, where are you?" He was giggling with excitement behind the transparent curtains, practicing his patience, which for a toddler was something in the range of one minute. As he became more proficient at hiding, he made new versions of the game. Hiding under a blanket, behind a small plant, under the table, but always making sure he was covering his eyes so he couldn’t be seen.

 

I always remember these moments with a smile on my face. As Dan Ariely would put it, how predictably irrational children are! As adults, we like to relate back to our childhood years to find these gems of irrationality. But are we so much different as adults? Don’t we find enough examples of irrational behavior in our own lives by just paying attention to what people around us do? Everyday, we do things and make small decisions that can have big consequences. And they are not always in our favor. Maybe we don't hide behind a transparent curtain anymore, but we still assume that if we don't see or know something, there is probably nothing to be seen or known.

 

As humans, our cognitive functions have evolved incredibly fast in the last thousands of years. But some areas of our brain that have been there for millions of years, evolved very slowly. Our instincts and our emotions have a great influence on how we act and make decisions, even if we like to think that we’re all logical and rational.  Our brain has in fact a limited capacity to retrieve complex information quickly. It is wired to draw conclusions and make decision almost instantly, often relying on incomplete data that is readily available.

 

We see this playing out in our everyday life. We get home tired from work and we want to start making dinner, but our partner didn't buy the ingredients we needed. So we draw the conclusion that she just doesn't care. We see our child behind a screen, and we get angry because we assume that he has done nothing else the entire day. We need that analysis to be able to finish our presentation, but the colleague who was supposed to send it over, didn't. So we assume she's sloppy and incompetent. How many times did you catch yourself saying to someone you love: "You always do that!" or "You never do that!", just to realize two seconds later, that it was not true. Always and never are clearly exaggerations.


So why are we doing it anyway?


What You See Is All There Is


The tendency to jump to conclusions based on available and incomplete data, is what psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman called the WYSIATI effect: what you see is all there is. It’s a cognitive bias generated by our automatic, intuitive and emotional brain, System 1, as opposed to a slower, more deliberate and logical System 2.

 

Our intuitive brain is wired to constantly look for meaning and coherence. It wants to take quick decisions. It’s a sense making machine. Our logical brain on the other hand, has powerful cognitive and analytical potential, but it’s very lazy. So, the combination of a coherence seeking System 1 and a lazy System 2 implies that System 2 will endorse many intuitive beliefs, without challenging System 1. There is a good example that illustrates this effect and you can try it yourself without reading the answer.

 

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

 

When I first did this, I answered like more people: 10 cents. But if you make the calculation again, you see that it doesn’t add up. If the ball was 10 cents and the bat costs $1.00 more, together, they would be $1.20. So, how much does the ball cost?

 

There are so many everyday examples where our automatic brain tricks us into believing that we can quickly come up with the right answer and it must be true. But when we take a bit of time to reflect, we realize that we missed some critical data in our decision making process. 


Our brain jumps to conclusions based on a few pieces of data that it can quickly retrieve. But is that all there is? Research has demonstrated again and again that our brain is incapable to hold too many details in the short term memory. So before drawing conclusions about complex issues that can affect other people, we need to train ourselves to ask the right questions and not assume too much.

 

 "There is an asymmetry in how our mind treats information currently available and information we don't have. The way our brain is wired is that it only represents activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved from memory, might as well not exist. System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it doesn't have. The measure of System 1 is the coherence of the story. " Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow


Our Blind Spots in Action


The best way to understand why our brains jump to conclusion without having complete information, is by looking at how optical illusions and magic tricks work. As humans, we rely heavily on our perception and cognition to make sense of the world around us. But sometimes, our brains can be easily tricked, leading to false interpretations of reality. Optical illusions occur when our brains receive incomplete or ambiguous signals from the eyes, leading to a wide range of optical tricks. Visual illusions occur when our perception is influenced by factors such as size, color, and brightness, leading to misperceptions of the physical world around us.


There is a classic experiment called the Stroop effect, that demonstrates how our perception is influenced by cognitive biases. When we look at a list of words naming a color, our brain is fast at picking the color. But if you write the word in a different color, there is a dissonance that takes effort to be processed.


Try it for yourself. Look at the words below and say as fast as you can the name of the color that the word represents. The first one is red.



Our innate biases are like optical illusions: they can lead us to the wrong conclusions based on available data. And even when we know the trick, it’s still difficult to believe that our first conclusion was wrong. Actually, the less we know, the easiest it is for our brain to draw a conclusion that makes for a coherent story. That’s why fake news works so well. Just repeat the same few pieces of information many times, don’t challenge anything, and you have your peace of mind.

 

It’s true that ignorance is bliss, because the more you know, the more you need to learn how to make sense of potential dissonances and conflicting ideas. And that takes effort and energy.


I took the pictures below a couple of years ago at Technopolis. If you look through a narrow hole, you can see the ladder on the left. But if approach the exhibit, you can see the pieces on the right. It's just a matter of perspective and focus.




WYSIATI in Relationships


I remember this heated moment at home one evening. It was a busy week, with travel and big meetings and I got home late, after a long and stressful day. I usually get irritated when I am hungry, but on that day, I had an extra layer of irritability because I was very tired. I had planned the weekly dinners in advance and left clear instructions to my partner on what he had to prep, so we can eat on time. But when I get to the kitchen, surprise, not even one pan on the stove. My partner was calm, asking how my day went, while he hadn't even boiled the water for the pasta! Outrageous! My mind was going all places. “This is not fair! I do all this planning to make sure we eat healthy and at a decent time, and he cannot even make the effort to prepare a warmed up dinner. I have to take care of everything in this house. I need to think about what we eat, what we do next weekend, the birthday parties coming up, I keep the family calendar up to date, while also working full time. Men have it so easy when there is a woman taking care of the household and family.”

 

The negative down spiral was speeding up and my face looked like I had just drank a glass of lemon juice. And then my partner says: "We already ate, Sam was hungry when we got back from school. My mom invited us for dinner at their place and I brought you a meal you can just rewarm. We can eat the pasta tomorrow."

 

This is a good example of availability bias in action. We pay attention to the things in front of us, what our memory can retrieve easily: information that is readily available, what we see in the news, something bad that happens to someone we know, a story that a friend tells us.


Do you ever wonder why you suddenly feel motivated to make that doctor’s appointment that we kept on postponing, when you hear that a friend of a friend was diagnosed with some rare disease? The recent, the frequent, the negative and the extreme are the stimuli our brain is wired to react to. It’s how we are wired as humans, and the only thing we can do about it is train ourselves to become aware of when that happens.



Think about a good friend of yours that you haven’t seen in a while. What comes to mind? There is a good chance that one of your friend’s recent Instagram story will appear in front of you. Internet and social media gives us the illusion of knowing, because everything is instantly available at the click of a button. It keeps our automatic brain stimulated and constantly busy. Our reflective brain is in a dormant state, unless we intentionally create the necessary space it needs to activate. 

 

Reality is not made of the curated stories we see online. It’s the big and messy and chaotic experience called life, that we all feel and see through our own subjective lenses. The only way to make better decisions that our future self will thank us for, is by learning how to overcome our automatisms and take more time for deliberate thinking and action. And we need to build the muscle of self- awareness to catch ourselves whenever we fall into the trap of biased thinking.



WYSIATI at Work


The way most of us work today is completely different than it was five years ago. We work more often remote, we have larger networks spread all over the world, we use more virtual communications and we spend less time in the physical presence of others. This can become problematic if we are not self-aware and we don’t invest time in nurturing those relationships that matter most to us.

 

One slippery behavior I often fall into, is assuming that if I don’t hear back from someone, the person probably doesn’t care about me. My controlling tendencies start to activate and I get agitated. I need to make contact, to hear and see for myself. If I can’t see it, it probably doesn’t happen. With time, I learned to catch myself when I get into this mode. I start listing all the things I need and look for past evidence proving that my co-workers are professional, reliable and deliver things on time. But it takes an extra layer of effort and energy to get out of the automatic impulse to assume and do the work myself.

 

When we don’t develop this self-awareness muscle, we find it difficult to identify when biases and slippery behaviors occur. And that can have a negative effect on people’s wellbeing, as well as on the outcome of their work.

 

Understanding how availability bias works, will help us make smarter decisions for our careers and take the right steps in order to make our work and impact visible. Imagine you work in a hybrid environment and your boss sits in the company’s headquarters. She goes to the office everyday, and so do your teammates from that same location. They see each other at the coffee machine, they talk about their weekend plans during lunch, they connect on a more personal level. Meanwhile, you work from home and see your boss and teammates on Zoom, most of the times going directly to the topic of the meeting. Even when your performance is impeccable and you’re doing great work, there is a high probability that one of your teammates who work with your boss everyday will come to her mind quicker, when she needs to pick a new lead for that strategic new project. So you need to add more energy in staying connected and aware of all the social cues that are so crucial in organizations. Do not assume that doing great work and delivering on expectations is enough to propel you into your next role.

 

If you are a manager or have a role in influencing other people, you should take enough time to reflect and list all the objective facts, before making a decision that affects others. It’s not always wise to rely on your gut feeling, because you might fall into the trap of availability bias and miss some critical piece of information. Our instincts are sometimes our allies and help us act fast, but they also trick us when the problem is more complex and requires analyzing different data points. Our brain wants to quickly make up a story that makes sense. But it just cannot handle complex operations or contradictory sets of data so fast, so the story might not hold true.


“The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing - what we see is all there is. Furthermore, our associative system tends to settle on a coherent pattern of activation and suppresses doubt and ambiguity. We want certainty.” Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

 

Make More Sense of What Doesn’t


If we have this innate tendency to take rushed decisions based on what is available, and quickly make up stories that help us avoid cognitive dissonance, what can we do about it so we don’t regret it later? How do we make more time for reflection and for thinking about what we don't know? How do we manage the paradox between making fast decisions and making the right decisions? Here are a few ideas that have been working well for me and others I talked to over the years. This is definitely not an exhaustive list, but it can give you a direction and get you started. 

 

 

1.     Assume nothing

Listening is hard. Having the patience to reflect on what we are hearing, is even harder. We often jump to conclusions before trying to understand the facts and we assume too much, too often. Assumptions can lead to terrible decisions. Assuming that other people understood what you were saying, will lead you to move too fast and losing others in the process.


Assuming that others have the same needs and wants as you, will block your ability to connect and engage with others. In my case, assuming that someone else is not responding to my requests because they don’t care, creates unnecessary anxiety and frustration.


Assuming that someone is in a certain way, based on what we know about their identity, will significantly decrease the quality of our relationships and inhibit our creativity and innovative problem solving. Instead, approach everything with an open mind and look at the facts in front of you. If there is one thing you could assume, let that be he positive intention of others.

 

 

2.     Clarify your stories

Before taking an important decision that can affect others or have consequences for your future self, ask yourself if you have all the relevant data to make that decision. Let’s imagine that a headhunter is approaching you on LinkedIn with an offer you can’t refuse. Because you just had a heated discussion with your boss, your first impulse will be “Yes, I will apply. Others acknowledge me and appreciate the value I bring, unlike my boss who’s never happy. I will show him how important I am.”

 

It’s a good idea to stop for a few minutes and think about all the pros and cons of the decision to apply to a new job. What is the work I would do there? What kind of organization is that? Who would be my new boss? What are the benefits compared to what I have now? What growth opportunities do I have in the new company? Don’t let an recent emotion affect the quality of your decisions.


Try to step back, make some mental space and look at the situation from an objective standpoint. Look at the story from the storyteller’s perspective, and be mindful if you want to let yourself immersed in the story. This technique will help you uncover certain emotional patterns that influence your decision making and make you rely too much on gut feeling with the risk of missing the objective and reliable data at hand.

 

3.       Listen to both sides of the story

We like it when we are right. In fact, we like it so much, that our brain is constantly searching for evidence that supports our opinion, and rejects anything that doesn’t align. As humans, we have a strong need for consonance. If an argument is consonant with our beliefs, we say "just what I always said". If not, we will say, "what a dumb argument."

 

In one study, people were monitored by functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) as they tried to process dissonant or consonant information about their favorite political candidate. The researchers found that the reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when participants were confronted with dissonant information, and the emotion circuits of the brain were activated when consonance was restored. These mechanisms provide a neurological basis for the observation that once our minds are made up, it is hard to change them.

 

Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs. Our brain hates dissonance. The stories we tell ourselves need to make sense so we can sleep better at night. Being open to opinions that are different from ours, is a really hard thing to do.


In one of his blogposts, Ryan Holiday writes about how smart people learn to accept contradictions. He reminds us of the concept of “negative capability”, which is the ability to entertain multiple contradictory ideas in your head at the same time.

 

“The world is complicated, ambiguous, paradoxical, and contradictory. To make sense of it, to survive it, one must be able to balance conflicting ideas. To try to force everything into a simple box, or adhere to a simple theory? It just won’t work.” Ryan Holiday

 

 4.     You are not your ideas

We attach ourselves to our identities and our beliefs, to the point where we identify ourselves with our ideas. While it is important to live our life on good principles and values, attaching ourselves too much to our ideas, makes us more resistant to change. We all change over time, and we often need to rethink who we are and what we know.


In his book Think Again, Adam Grant talks about the joy of being wrong, a positive emotion we feel when we discover that we were wrong. If we accept that we were wrong, we are ready to learn and we are better than we were yesterday. When we learn how to think like scientists, we embrace rethinking and accepting other opinions as a natural process of discovery and learning.

 

“No one enjoys being wrong, but I do enjoy having been wrong, because it means I am now less wrong than I was before.” Daniel Kahneman

 

5.     Embrace a beginner’s mindset

 

Adopting a beginner’s mindset is liberating at all levels: at work, in our relationships, with our family. It helps us relieve some of the pressure that comes with needing to always be right.

  

When we let go of the need to know it all and be right, we are free to explore new possibilities and see everything from a new perspective. It doesn’t imply that we should be passive and non-assertive. It just means that we should always remain open to others’ opinions and accept that sometimes, others can be right too. To practice a beginner’s mindset is to periodically question and reassess our long held deep beliefs and let go of our limiting assumptions.




We live in a big and complex world, full of contradictions. Learning how to stop and reflect on what happens around us before making important decisions is a life skill and a muscle that needs constant practice. It will help us have richer relationships, more meaningful work and a calmer and more balanced life.


If you feel like you need more clarity in your life, but you're not sure where to start, schedule a Free Change Strategy discovery session, by writing me at heysparkingdrive@gmail.com or in the Contact form. We will assess together your objective and discuss different possible strategies to achieve your goals.


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