Until very recently, fields of human study such as economics made the assumption that people were “rational”. That they could be counted on to make decisions that were in their best interest. In a century dominated by the rise of physics, computers and other “hard” sciences, logic and the triumph of the left brain over the right brain seemed inevitable.
But what if intuition and emotions are not aspects of our humanity that we must learn to suppress less they interfere with our logical brains, but actually high performance decision making tools?
Today’s New York Times features an article about the value of “hunches” on the battlefield in Iraq:
The United States military has spent billions on hardware, like signal jamming technology, to detect and destroy what the military calls improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, the roadside bombs that have proved to be the greatest threat in Iraq and now in Afghanistan…
Still, high-tech gear, while helping to reduce casualties, remains a mere supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all — the human brain. Troops on the ground, using only their senses and experience, are responsible for foiling many I.E.D. attacks, and… they often cite a gut feeling or a hunch as their first clue.
Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others’ do…
The key quote in the article:
“Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. “Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.”
When I first met my friend Bill Somerville of the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, he talked extensively about the role of intuition in philanthropy. I ended up sending him a copy of the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell, in which the author argues convincingly that in many circumstances, humans make better decisions when they rely on their first gut instinct rather than over thinking a situation.
What strikes me about the New York Times article, the position put forward by Somerville and the book Blink, is how radically they fly in the face of the celebrated core on which modern philanthropy is based: The Logic Model.
According to conventional wisdom in organized philanthropy, a well designed logic model that lays out why certain interventions will result in the intended outcomes is the mark of a disciplined funder. It is not just that this approach looks down at intuition and other “right brain” human tools. It is that conventional wisdom rejects “right brain” approaches as being a mark of lack of rigor and discipline. It rejects not just conclusions based on these tools, but the validity of the tools themselves.
Last October, in the thick of the financial crisis, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the coming Behavioral Revolution:
Roughly speaking, there are four steps to every decision. First, you perceive a situation. Then you think of possible courses of action. Then you calculate which course is in your best interest. Then you take the action.
Over the past few centuries, public policy analysts have assumed that step three is the most important. Economic models and entire social science disciplines are premised on the assumption that people are mostly engaged in rationally calculating and maximizing their self-interest.
But during this financial crisis, that way of thinking has failed spectacularly.
I haven’t read it yet, but I’m wondering if the best selling book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, might just be required reading for the next generation of philanthropic leaders… or leaders in every field.