Knowing when you can trust your gut

Working in digital marketing, you probably have situations where you have to make a decision, even though you really wish that you could collect additional data.


Maybe you want to find a few examples of successful content ignition from your own market, rather than from another market that is only somehow related. Or you want to spend more time experimenting with the latest video-streaming app before committing to one. Perhaps, what you really need is a bit more feedback on your new website or the app that you have been working on for a while, before you give it green light.


But you can’t.


Instead, you have to jump in. Go with your gut. After all, collecting and analysing data is expensive, and is time consuming. And when you work in digital, you have neither one nor the other to spare.


Well, I am here to tell you that you shouldn’t worry about that. In fact, it has been scientifically proven that, sometimes, following your gut (or using heuristics, to adopt the technical term) is better than conducting extensive analysis.


Here is the science bit.


Research in the field of cognitive science has shown that, under certain conditions, decisions based on a limited amount of information actually outperforme those based on sophisticated computational approaches.


Cognitive scientists call this the ‘less is more effect’. And these are the conditions that make the ‘less is more effect’ work.



  1. There are a small number of observations relative to the number of available cues

In every day life, we often need to make decisions based on a limited amount of data. For instance, imagine that we went to the cinema and, after an hour or so, we need to decide whether to  extend our parking, depending on how much longer the movie is likely to take.


One option is to get up, go to the ticketing office, and ask that information. Another option is to compare the situation at hand with other, analogous situations that we experienced, and use memory and perception to make a reasonable guess about the length of the movie.

We have knowledge about how long most movies last, based on our experience of watching other movies (i.e., memory). Moreover, we can use our common sense about how the movie plot is evolving, to guess how close it is to a resolution (i.e., perception). These two simple mechanisms help us make predictions with reasonable accuracy, without the need to collect and compute a lot of additional information.

This paper suggests that heuristics outperform extensive calculations when you have a ratio of 10 observations or less for every cue*, though the proportion may vary with the type of problem.

And, if you want to learn more about human cognition, this is an interesting read.


  1. The cues available are related

It’s not just the number of cues that count, but also the type. In particular, whether they are related.


Cues can be related in the sense that they refer to different angles of the same problem, or in the sense that one factor leads to the other.


Our cognitive system performs best when generalising from few observations. So, when the cues available are related, relying on one good reason to make our decision is more effective than trying to unpack the relationships between multiple cues, and the relative importance of each one on the final outcome.


For instance, it is reasonable to expect that all movies in The Lord of the Rings trilogy will have a similar length. If we watched the first two (this one and this one), and we know that each lasted close to three hours, we can confidently estimate that the third one will run for close to three hours, too.


  1. The decision maker is knowledgeable about the problem

When we have extensive knowledge about a field, we kind of instinctively know what to do next, without having to go through extensive analysis and computation.


We see this effect in sports, for instance, where expert players make excellent decisions in split seconds, without having to consider all available information. This is not the case with novices.


In our movies example, a movies’ expert might, for instance, recognise that Peter Jackson has directed many long movies, not just The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And, thus, adjust their expectations, accordingly, regarding the length of the movie.


It is important to note here that the expert knowledge is very specific to a given context, and might not transfer well to a new context. So, the expert basketball player would not be able to make an equally good decision in, say, football; and the movie boffin would find it difficult to guess the length of, say, a documentary or theatre production.


In a novel business situation we can look for cues that help us relate the situation in hand to others that we are familiar with. Then, we can draw on our experience of those situations, tempered with our common sense about the specificities of the new situation, to make a decision. The higher the number of recognisable cues and/or the stronger the relationship between those clues, the more likely it is that we will make the right decision, even though we do not have time to conduct extensive market research. And if we are knowledgeable about the problem it is very likely that our instinct will point us towards a good decision, without the need to collect masses of data, and spend hours and hours analysing them.


If you meet these conditions, then go ahead, and trust your gut.




* In other words, if you have 10 cues, you would need to get at least 101 observations to calculate an answer whose outcome would be better than relying on your gut.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s