Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

Improving Your Decision Making With Checklists (Guy Spier)

We can improve our decision-making an awful lot by using checklists. The main way that I see it is that the investment world, either by design or by nature — and I think it is a combination of the two — throws up plenty of information that is designed to trigger one of two areas in the brain.

One is the threat detection fear mechanism, which throws up a very primeval response that has evolved within us for a very long time. It is one of the oldest parts of our brain — the fight-or-flight response. When we see something that makes us fearful, and we don’t have time to act, analyze and make weighted judgments, we have to decide either to run or to stay. We all know days in the market where that part of an investor’s brain is dominating and in which share prices can move around rather dramatically when compared to what appears to be very small amounts of news. So that is one sort of mode that the markets can be in, which is really the psychological mode of the majority of the participants in the market.


Then there is another side, which is irrational exuberance, as Alan Greenspan has described it, where the part of the brain that is being triggered is, as I’ve seen it described in various articles, the pleasure center of the brain. It turns out that the part of the brain we stimulate by the expectation of future profits is not that far away or dissimilar to the part of the brain that is stimulated, or lights up in CAT scans, when cocaine addicts either contemplate or are taking cocaine. These are very powerful centers.

Whether it is the fight-or-flight or the expectation of pleasure centers, the effect of both is to short-circuit rationally considered thoughts. They undermine the path of the brain that can make weighted, careful judgments about probabilities and about expectations. My perception is that it is the rational neocortex from which flow the very best investment decisions. Unfortunately, the world in which we operate is a minefield of opportunities to get caught up either by the fight-or-flight or by the pleasure center. So to the extent that somebody will talk about an investment being good when one is trembling with greed – I would not subscribe to that because trembling with greed implies that your greed and pleasure mechanisms in the brain are dominating the rational side.

I think that somebody like Warren Buffett is naturally wired not to be in either of those two extremes and spends his time in the happy middle. I think that what the rest of us human beings can do to train ourselves to be in that happy middle is use checklists. A checklist pulls us away from the kinds of actions that we would take if we were in either fight-or-flight or greed modes. So that is the basis for checklists.

The example I have given in talks is an airplane that is crashing. There is no question that checklists have been extremely helpful in reducing airplane accident rates. What it does is it brings the brain back to the place where one can make rational decisions.

From Guy’s Manual Of Ideas Interview.