To test your mental acuity, answer the following questions (no peeking at the answers!):
1. Johnny’s mother had three children. The first child was named April. The second child was named May. What was the third child’s name?
2. A clerk at a butcher shop stands five feet ten inches tall and wears size 13 sneakers. What does he weigh?
3. Before Mt. Everest was discovered, what was the highest mountain in the world?
4. How much dirt is there in a hole that measures two feet by three feet by four feet?
5. What word in the English language is always spelled incorrectly?
6. Billie was born on December 28th, yet her birthday always falls in the summer. How is this possible?
7. In British Columbia you cannot take a picture of a man with a wooden leg. Why not?
8. If you were running a race and you passed the person in 2nd place, what place would you be in now?
9. Which is correct to say, “The yolk of the egg is white” or “The yolk of the egg are white?”
10. A farmer has five haystacks in one field and four haystacks in another. How many haystacks would he have if he combined them all in one field?
1. Johnny. 2. Meat. 3. Mt. Everest. It just wasn’t discovered yet. 4. There is no dirt in a hole. 5. Incorrectly (except when it is spelled incorrecktly). 6. Billie lives in the southern hemisphere. 7. You can’t take a picture with a wooden leg. You need a camera (or iPad or cell phone) to take a picture. 8. You would be in 2nd place. You passed the person in second place, not first. 9. Neither. Egg yolks are yellow. 10. One. If he combines all his haystacks, they all become one big stack.
Okay, some of these are a bit corny. But they all illustrate several brain idiosyncrasies that affect how we make decisions in the world.
Thanks to the way our brain works, we have a very strong tendency to see what we want to see and what we expect to see. This has huge implications when studying our customers, markets, competitors, and other data that influences key business decisions.
When we only see what we want or expect to see, we miss competitive threats because our brain tells us a threat couldn’t possibly come from that direction. We miss opportunities because we only see what has worked in the past rather than what could be. And we miss major market shifts and changes in customer needs that seem obvious in hindsight but are easily overlooked when focusing on what we already know.
Our brain doesn’t like information gaps, so we tend to jump at the first answer/solution that looks good rather than take the time to examine all the data. This is especially true in a world where we receive more information every day than we have time to assimilate. Finally, our brains love to see patterns and make connections. This trait serves us well in many ways as we move through the world. But the brain doesn’t always get it right.
For example, how did you answer question #1 (be honest)? For most people, the first word that pops into their head is “June,” because the brain quickly spots the April/May/June pattern. Upon re-reading the question and analyzing the data, the answer “Johnny” becomes obvious.
And what about the man with the wooden leg? Your answer depends on how you interpret “with.” Does it refer to the man with the wooden leg or to the camera? A bit of a trick question, but it clearly illustrates how the language we use shapes the way we look at the world.
Perhaps the best example of how we miss things is the egg yolk question. Everybody knows egg yolks are yellow. But the question’s phrasing puts our attention on selecting the correct verb, so we overlook an obvious piece of data and an even more obvious answer.
We can’t change how the brain works – at least not yet. Give science another 50 years and who knows what our brains will be doing! For now, we can become more aware of how our brain works, then pause from time to time to consider what we’re missing. This includes the data we’re unconsciously screening out as well as different sources of data to counterbalance what we expect to see.
Get in the habit of teasing your brain. You’ll be amazed at what you end up seeing that you didn’t see before.