Streetlights and Shadows

A policeman saw a drunk searching for something under a streetlight. “What have you lost, my friend?” the policeman asked. “My keys”, said the drunk. The policeman then helped the drunk look and finally asked him: “Where exactly did you drop them?” “Over there,” responded the drunk, pointing toward a dark alley. The policeman then asked: “Why are you looking here?” The drunk immediately replied: “Because the light is so much brighter here.”

This story is a metaphor for human decision making. It illustrates the streetlight effect: we tend to look for answers where the looking is good, rather than where the answers are likely to be hiding.

In making decisions, when should we use our intuition and when should we rely on logic and statistics? Most of us would probably agree that for important decisions, we should follow certain guidelines -gather as much information as possible, compare the options, pin down the goals before getting started. But in practice we make some of our best decisions by adapting to circumstances rather than blindly following procedures.

The standard advice works well when everything is clear, but the tough decisions involve shadowy conditions of complexity and ambiguity. Gathering masses of information, for example, works if the information is accurate and complete, but that doesn’t often happen in the real world.

More realistic ideas about how to make decisions in real-life settings show that the best decision makers saw things that others didn’t. They used their expertise to pick up cues and to discern patterns and trends. We can make better decisions, if we are prepared for complexity and ambiguity and if we will stop expecting the data to tell us everything. People taught to understand a system develop richer mental models than people taught to follow procedures.

Experienced-based thinking is different from analysis-based thinking. The two aren’t opposed to each other; they are complementary, like daytime vision and night vision. Experience-based thinking isn’t the absence of analysis. It’s the application of all that we have encountered and learned.

Summing-up: Real problems have aspects of clarity and ambiguity about them. Solutions therefore lie at the intersection of streetlights and shadows.

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