Don't trust your gut
April 5, 2023

An entertaining way to teach leaders don’t trust your gut

By Paul Laughlin

We have shared before on this blog about the importance of data literacy education on why not to trust your gut. Media which can bring to life how data-based decision making is more accurate and accessible.

In previous posts on data literacy I have focussed on content & media that can work in educating your fellow leaders. However, there is also a hearts & minds challenge here. Relying on gut reaction, emotions & assumptions has become an unconscious habit for many in business. So, data leaders may also need help with both raising awareness of this behaviour and engaging a disinterested audience.

To help with both those challenges, I recommend the bestseller “Don’t trust your gut” by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. It is a really engaging and fun read, aimed at the general population. It could well help with capturing the imagination of skeptical and non-data-literate leaders, as it focusses on everyday life decisions.

Exposing the areas of our life where we go with our gut

Let me start this book review with outlining the structure of this book. After an entertaining introduction making the case for learning from data (including men’s google searches), other chapters focus on life decisions. In each one Seth outlines the difficulties we all face & reveals the sometimes surprising answers from Big Data studies.

Those chapters cover life decisions and areas of interest including:
1. Choosing a wife/spouse
2. Parenting decisions
3. Athletic success
4. How to get rich in America
5. Success in your field (including arts)
6. How to get lucky (spoiler = travel & content production)
7. Improving your appearance
8. Activities to make you happy
9. What to avoid, what makes you miserable

As you can see from that list, this is far from being a nerdy technology book. For each of those life areas, Seth shares common assumptions & then what data studies show. In every case people get it wrong. Our gut reactions or media encouraged assumptions are undermined by behavioural data analysis.

How can data help with those life decisions?

There are two ways in which Seth reveals that data can help us with such life decisions. First, by giving examples of how far more data is available now than has ever existed for past research based studies. Second, by revealing what such data analysis shows gives the best outcomes to the above challenges.

Throughout the book there are references to several groundbreaking studies. Massive big data collection programs like the Mappiness app and other joining of massive public databases provide fresh sources for answers. Seth explains the advantages such timely behavioural data capture has over past research studies.

The results of such studies reveal two types of surprising answer. In some cases these are counterintuitive (you are better to drink while doing boring things & stay sober in happy social situations). But Seth also reveals the interesting cases of counter-counter-intuitive results. These are results based on big data analysis that make common sense but popular media coverage has convinced us of counter-intuitive stereotypes. For example, the myth that successful entrepreneurs are young. Common sense tells us more likely to be experienced in business & older, which is what the data also reveals.

How could ‘Don’t trust your gut’ help your data literacy campaign?

As well as being a very entertaining book, full of anecdotes and surprising data analysis, I believe it could help data leaders. Because so many non-data-literate employees expect the topic to be boring & geeky, it can aid engagement. There are also useful data-based life tips throughout its pages that others may find helpful. For instance, parents don’t sweat the small stuff, but do focus on the location of where you raise your children.

I recommend buying a copy of this book for any senior leaders you are seeking to educate. It could also be used as a fun book to pass around a team who are participating in a wider data literacy program. It should help create a buzz and lots of stories that begin to capture the imagination of your audience. After all beyond all the specifics, your challenge is to change mindsets & awaken your audience to the value in thinking data first.

What do you think? Was that book review helpful for you? Have you had the experience of discovering counter intuitive answers from data that changed how you lived your life? Have you taken a data-driven approach to any of your major life decisions? If so, I’d love to hear your examples and share a selection here.