How Your Instincts Could Be Putting You At Risk

Can Counter-Instinctive Habits Help?

One thing we trust, above all, is our instincts. The instinct to run when you are in danger. The instinct to eat when you are hungry.

Throughout history, humans have relied on instincts to navigate life. When there have been threats to our physical survival, relying on our natural impulses to come to our rescue has served us well for millennia. If our ancestors didn’t follow their instincts, we might not be here.

But what if your instincts were … wrong? Could millions of years of human wiring be flawed? Yes and no.

We are descendants of highly reactive, fear-motivated, and urgency-minded people. Those who stopped and carefully analyzed the probabilities of whether there might be a lion in the grass are not our ancestors. So, being reactive is in our nature, and we need to accept it.

“We are the offspring of those who decided and acted quickly with insufficient information,” according to Hans Rosling, acclaimed TED speaker and author of the book Factfulness.

What about when the threat we perceive isn’t actually a fight for our lives? In the 21st century, oftentimes the challenges we face threaten our egos, reputations, or social status — but not our ability to survive. In these instances, relying on instincts can actually hurt more than help us.

For instance, let’s say you are running a workshop and someone in the audience challenges your authority. In this situation, you can easily react and jump on that person and prove them wrong to assert your authority. Such an act would only alienate you from the audience and reduce the impact of your workshop.

Once you determine that you are safe and face no real threats, relying heavily on your instincts can often lead you down the wrong road.

For example, in slippery or snowy conditions, even if we were driving carefully, our car could skid. Our tendency is to slam the brakes to make it stop, which of course makes it worse. It’s not because we “evolved” to drive in the snow (or to drive at all). But what we think of as instinct is to “make it stop,” and we have been taught that brakes do that. And they can–except on ice. If you hit the brakes hard, what you do is lock your wheels and slide due to the reduced traction.

Unfortunately, many drivers who have learned not to brake hard in the snow or ice, still react instinctively and turn their steering wheel away from the skid and the skid worsens. That’s why we’re told by driving instructors repeatedly to turn into the skid.

“If the back end slides to the left, you should steer to the left to catch the slide,” says Carl Nadeau, a race-car driver and Michelin driving expert.

Counter-Intuitive vs. Counter-Instinctive

Most people are familiar with the word “counter-intuitive,” but not “counter-instinctive.”

If you do a web search for “counter-instinctive,” Google automatically “spell corrects” and provides the definition of “counter-intuitive’’ at the top of the search results list — but these terms aren’t synonymous.

We label something as counter-intuitive when we think it should work a certain way, but in reality it works exactly the opposite way. For example, steering a sailboat is counter-intuitive — you push the tiller the opposite way to the way you want to go. If we pull the rudder of a boat to the left expecting it to turn left, it ends up turning right. It’s the opposite of what you would expect or what seems to be obvious.

Counter-intuitive thinking is more cognitive and knowledge-based, whereas counter-instinctive behavior relates to how we could act in the moment by going against our instincts. Counter-instinctive actions are the opposite actions that our natural or innate impulse, inclination, or tendency will lead us to react in any given situation.

Here are some other situations when our instincts may fail us:

The instinct to help others in need. On airplanes — should there be a need for oxygen masks — passengers are advised to put on their own masks first before helping others. For many people, especially caregivers traveling with children, their instinctive response is usually to first support others in their group. But they’re advised to rethink this plan because, in reality, we can’t truly help others if we aren’t taking steps to care for ourselves. It might feel wrong or selfish to not put others before ourselves, but taking this time to pause and practice counter-instinctive behavior will actually better equip us to respond to life’s stressors — in the sky and on ground.

The instinct to go faster to get more done. Given that most of us are very busy with long “To-Do” lists, we tend to focus on getting things done vs. getting things right. When we’ve got a lot to do, we’re inclined to work more quickly so we can get more done. But tackling tasks more swiftly can lead to mistakes — which, in the long run, can mean more work. Instead of speeding up when feeling overwhelmed and overworked, what we actually would benefit from would be working more slowly and diligently so we can get the job done right on the first attempt. While our instinct will make us speed up, it’s better to develop the counter-instinctive habit of slowing down when the going gets tough. We see this all the time in sports. When does a sports team take a time out? When things are going well, or when they need to regroup, rest, and come up with a new game plan?

The instinct to be efficient in the short run instead of effective in the long run. We can monitor how we spend our time more easily by evaluating the quality of our solution. Efficiency is visible in the here and now, while effectiveness may take a while to be evaluated. Too many managers give instructions to the team in terms of how long they can devote to a task or a project and not nearly as much guidance on the quality of the work.

In business, if you are effective but inefficient, you will erase your profit margins, and, if you are ineffective but efficient, you will lose your customers. For a business to retain its customers, you may need to be counter-instinctive and focus first on effectiveness and then on efficiency. You will need to be both effective and efficient to thrive.

Have you ever caught yourself firing off email after email, each only a sentence or so long? You might think you’re being efficient by quickly responding to inquiries, but the urgency to hit “send” might actually hurt you.

I had introduced a client of mine to a potential new business associate via email. While my client had good intentions — and wanted to make sure he responded to this email before getting on a plane — to the person receiving the email, his short tone and lack of pleasantries put him off and they never connected. Putting efficiency before effectiveness can set you up for self-inflicted wounds — all of which could have been avoided.

What gets many of us in trouble is our knee-jerk reactions when we’re under pressure. Managing the urge to impulsively respond to a situation isn’t something we were born with, but it is something that can be practiced and improved. Pausing— or taking time to interrupt our reactive nature — is the first step.

Another potential pitfall of our instinctive nature is that our automatic reactions often produce results that are the opposite of what we desire. Under pressure, our instincts kick in and we lose our sense of rationality.

The good news is that we can learn how to make better small, real-time choices in our daily lives. Therefore, it’s on us to practice long enough to make our preferred reaction to a high-stress situation second nature or it will evade us in the heat of the moment. How can we do better? Conscious awareness, deliberate practice, and systematic reflection are all key to developing our preferred response to triggering situations.

That’s where our Judgment Quotient® (JQ®) — or a person’s ability to make a choice in the moment that aligns with personal values, priorities, and goals — comes into play. When we work on trying to align our actions with our intentions and goals, we can improve our JQ® and, ultimately, navigate life’s ups and downs more elegantly. Cultivating counter-instinctive habits can be a great way to improve our JQ®.

Making my case to develop Counter-Instinctive Habits

There’s a saying that goes, “Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion. You sink to the level of your training.” The quote is attributed to the U.S. Navy SEALS, but it traces its roots to Greek lyrical poet Archilochus, who’s credited with saying: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.”

That’s how counter-instinctive behavior works, too. Unless we mindfully work on bridging the gap between our intentions and our actions, it won’t come naturally to us.

Remember, the folks who were deliberate, analytical, and patient perished. So, it’s our nature to be reactive, and the way to go around it is to cultivate counter-instinctive habits. It’s not easy, but it can be done with deliberate practice and reflection, much like we learned how to drive.

Wish you all the best.

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