For all our faults, human beings really are extraordinary, and all the more so when acting on their gut feeling that something may be wrong. Artificial intelligence (AI) is catching up, but we still wipe the floor with AI if it’s a matter of some tiny detail that somehow we know isn’t the case, despite every ‘fact’ appearing to the contrary. Malcolm Gladwell describes this process in his brilliant book Blink by presenting extraordinary instances of people’s gut feelings bearing them out, despite a paucity of information.
Feel it is wrong, follow it through
Sometimes, the answers to one’s intuition aren’t readily apparent. A friend of mine in the US received an Internal Revenue Services assessment and was troubled by what seemed a wrong assessment for one year that didn’t follow the usual pattern. She was annoyed at having to pay an amount that she really felt was wrong. So she hired an expert at a set fee well below the amount, figuring it was a worthwhile investment. The expert worked through the myriad forms, and phonically, eventually to discover that there was indeed an error—referred to as a “ghost error”—and the slate was wiped clean.
What is a ghost error?
You may be wondering what a ghost error actually is. “Ghost words” were first noticed in the 1880s by an eminent philologist, William Skeats, who came across some odd terms, for example “dord” or “kimes”, that had no historical meaning but which had been mistakenly written, often through typos and misprints, and had somehow slipped into everyday use. They seem innocuous, but can cause a lot of trouble.
Now that we’re all swimming in seas of traceable, often indiscriminate data, summoned up with a click, things have the potential to be quite messy, especially if you don’t know (as my friend didn’t) what you’re looking for. She was wise to hire an expert. Skeats in his day had the (rare) expertise to trace where the wrongful use of a word had begun, but you don’t need years of fossicking in dusty libraries to confirm a hunch.
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What do you do if you feel it is wrong?
If you’re experiencing discomfort or conversely an inner conviction about something, you need to do the following:
Pay attention to your inner voice
Something tells you a situation, a person or an outcome isn’t quite right, although on the surface, nothing appears amiss. Don’t wait until you’re caught up in a mess and wishing you’d listened to your gut in the first place. Guts brilliantly process our food but they are also increasingly known as a “second brain”.
Who’s seen the 1940s noir film Double Indemnity where the protagonist’s boss, a claims adjuster (played by Edward G. Robinson) talks about his inner “little man”? “Every time one of these phonies comes along, (my little man) ties knots in my stomach. I can’t eat,” he says. That’s exactly how gut feelings may operate.
Robinson’s character had become an expert through years of assessing thousands of insurance claims, and in the film he gets very close to realising the murderer is right under his nose.
Test your gut feeling
Take note of your feeling and seek further information. Speak to trusted friends, colleagues or do what’s necessary to find further information. Sometimes we’re presented with noticeable clues, so ask questions, double check, and don’t let it pass.
Understand you may be wrong
Gut feelings are great for guiding us away from trouble, but sometimes it’s unclear what exactly they may be telling us. Be sure you’re not confusing hunches with prejudices or stubborn value systems. If you do, admit it properly, apologise fully (if called for), and make a point of staying your hand (or big mouth) next time until you have more evidence.
Find an expert
If you’ve made a “wrong” call, but still sense that things aren’t quite right, this may be because some problems may be harder to unearth. Forensic investigators and risk analysts don’t gain their reputation on the back of a few Google searches. The same applies to specialists. Their job is to dissect and process what you’re sensing until they trace it to the source.
You won’t always have the opportunity to draw on experts, but do try to speak to someone who is in a position to help before you decide on a course of action. Or cover your bets and ask several people who don’t know each other.
Write down your concerns for yourself. Think it through. Ask, if in doubt. You may be right 99% of the time, but always back your gut with evidence.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.