The Law of the Counter-Intuitive

Published on 2012-02-10

Source: jsayer @ Flickr
LEARN TO BEAT your initial instincts. It has been striking me recently just how much of life is completely counter-intuitive, where you need to take action that is actually the opposite of what you would expect in order to be successful.
Recently I purchased a PS3 with the game GT5 – an extremely realistic driving simulator. Much to my wife’s disgust I also purchased the steering wheel, pedals and gear change accessories for the game! Having played a number of times and enjoyed it thoroughly I now know how to get quite reasonable lap times and win many of the races. However when my family comes over and wants to play with it, it is quite a frustrating experience as I watch them continuously crash into walls, skid off into the gravel pit and continuously spin, then drive off in the wrong direction!
The counter-intuition is this… They think they should drive as fast as possible, never using the brake and turning hard and fast into corners. This is a reasonable assumption to make, given that this is a racing game and the cars are super-fast, but actually in order to win the game you need to brake regularly, especially before corners as it will actually allow you to take much more speed out of the corner. Turning gently and smoothly, while following the racing line will also produce much, much faster results. For many turns this actually means moving out into the opposite side of the track to allow you to take the turn in a large, smooth arch, rather than moving in the direction of the turn and making a very sharp turn, resulting in a massive loss of speed and often an accident. And so it goes, throughout so many areas of life, we need to do the opposite of what is logical… and beat our own natural instincts in order to be successful.
My wife was recently complaining about how tough the schools in Hong Kong are at the moment – how their are so few spaces all being fought for by just a few kids. It seems like a nightmare scenario for our “poor daughter” to have to be brought up in such a tough and competitive environment. However from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers – the story of success” he shows how kids who are brought up in a much more competitive environment are much more likely to succeed in the long run. It’s the kids who have it easy who lack drive and motivation in later life.
My friend who has just become a pilot for Cathay Pacific was telling me that often new pilots on discovering bad weather will fly low to the ground in order to establish visual contact. For an experienced pilot this is the most dangerous thing you can do – they do the opposite and gain height to get above the storm. Also there is a temptation to fly away from the storm, which seems natural. Again the best pilots often fly directly through the storm to the good weather on the other side where they can now land safely, without the serious risk of attempting to land in bad weather.
Even love lives seem to have a counter-intuitive element to them. I read recently that arranged marriages have a far higher long-term success rate than the Western “love based” marriages. The study analysed the level of love felt for the partner over time and noticed that while the marriage started out at zero, over the years the level of love increased significantly in an arrange marriage. With the “love based” marriages it was the opposite which accounts for a major percentage of the much higher divorce rate. It seems that choosing a partner with whom you are compatible makes far greater sense in the long run than choosing the one you are “head-over-heels” about and yet all our books, movies and popular songs promote the later rather than the former. I guess the lyric “Baby, your socio-economic background and education level makes you the sensible choice” is unlikely to generate a major hit!