THE BLOG
05/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Choking on Thought

Our brain is divided into two parts: the rational, analytical side. And, the instinctive, emotional side. For hundreds of years philosophers and scientists presumed that if we could just gain more control of our rational side (think Dr. Spock), our lives would be less chaotic and even happier.

But, there is a downside to allowing our rational side to dominate. Putting aside the issues of how uninteresting life might become, the fact is that there can be a human cost to thinking too much.

Anyone who has ever done a sport knows that, at times, you can outthink yourself. Sometimes instinct and reflex have to rule. In fact, psychologists who have studied "choking" -poor performance in critical situations - have concluded that the problem is over-thinking. Choking turns out to be the application of too much thought over instinct.

I recently read an excellent book, How People Decide, by Jonah Lehrer which analyzes how people balance logic and emotion in making decisions. In his chapter titled "Choking on Thought," Lehrer writes:

"People believe that a decision that's the result of rational deliberation will always be better than an impulsive decision. ... The reality of the brain is that, sometimes, rationality can lead us astray."

Lehrer and others make the point that in a world of overwhelming facts and figures - of too much information - our brains go "TILT" when we try to make sense of all the data. That is one reason experienced stock pickers are often outperformed by dart throwers. And why most mutual funds (whose decision makers you pay) are outperformed by the indexes.

The key to successful decision making can sometimes be the act of limiting the information you analyze. As Alvin Toffler wrote in the sixties in his ground-breaking book, Future Shock, the speed at which the world is changing and our attempts to keep up can cause our brains to overload. Or, as Lehrer says: "The human brain wasn't designed to deal with a surfeit of data (as exists in our world today)."

What's the upshot? Do your homework for a reasonable period of time and then, STOP. Trust your gut. Accept that there are no sure things, no perfect solutions. There are always risks of negative outcomes BUT more information and analysis does not always mean a higher likelihood of a good result.

I am not advocating against quiet time (last week's point). Rather I am suggesting that we all put an outside line on our contemplation, our analysis, our efforts to find logic in the world - and then, well just jump.


Jim Randel is the founder of The Skinny On book series,
and the author of several titles including: The Skinny On Success: Why not You? & The Skinny On Willpower: How to Develop Self-Discipline. See www.theskinnyon.com.