The Seventy Percent Solution

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I am wrong 70% of the time. Don’t ask me how I know it is 70%. I recognize numbers the way you recognize faces—a matter of familiarity and unconscious association, not calculation. I have a holistic understanding that 70% of all the decisions I make are incorrect. Even when I am not paying attention, my brain is keeping track. Just as you might say, “Oh, that’s Arnold. He changed his eyeglasses.” I will tell myself, “Yes, 70% feels right.”

I wouldn’t have had much success in life if I failed at 70% of everything I attempted. What I needed was a mechanism to overcome my intrinsic tendency to make the wrong call. My first take at this was a brute force method. I reduced my error rate by repeatedly examining the facts, playing out the results in my head and making changes if it didn’t seem to work. The questions weren’t monumental: what to wear to work, or how to impress a group of coworkers that hadn’t really noticed me. Deciding this way was slow and laborious. It could take hours to get dressed appropriately in the morning. It could take two months to put together a document that showed my colleagues I was competent.

Eventually, I discovered another way, a more efficient way. It may seem trivial to humans, but it took me a very long time to learn. This is what I realized: depending on other people allowed me to fail and still be successful. Here’s how. If you get a group together, the 70 percents cancel each other out in a very predictable manner. If one person is wrong 70% of the time, the second person reduces the error rate to 70% of 70%, or 49%: better than even odds, just with two people! And it gets even more favorable as you add more to the mix, up to the point of diminishing returns.

Why is this more efficient than repeatedly making decisions? For one thing, it all happens simultaneously, so the process goes faster. But the biggest reason is that different people think differently. Again, this may be a rather obvious point to the human mind, but much of my struggle in life derived from my late-to-the-table realization that minds are unique. So, with multiple people contributing, each participant is an independent variable, reducing the failures of the others by a full 30%.

When it was just me in the room, I was much less able to provide an alternate proposal. Repeatedly posing the problem to myself was error prone and slow, without the automatic correction factor people provide for each other. My decision to change my mind was still encumbered by the 70% rule, so even the choice to re-decide was more often wrong than not, and more often in the wrong direction.

Someone who is autistic might not realize—as I didn’t for decades—that depending upon others is the key to good decision making. But you needn’t be social by nature to interact with, or even to depend on, others. No, you just need to recognize the advantage of working with others, use it, and achieve the ends you choose.

Acting counter to type doesn’t take brilliance. It takes insight—the recognition it is a useful tool—and it takes energy. Behaving in a manner that is not natural is enormously exhausting, but it is acting, just as any other aspect of life is. Acting isn’t a negative term, by the way. I am always acting. Because I act, I can exist in this world of humans. I suspect you may be doing a bit of acting too, perhaps just less consciously.

I’ll bet most humans have approximately the same self-failure rate of 70% as I do, some people a little more, some a little less. The difference is humans don’t explicitly quantify it the way I do. But they don’t have to. I must. If I didn’t measure and analyze the world in these ways, I wouldn’t be able to survive.

It is likely I’ve bored you already with my focus on numbers. I tend to dwell on them. I am rather fond of them. Some of my best friends are numbers. They are dependable, infinite and fascinating. But you may not feel the same way. So if you want to stop reading here, by all means do. If, however, you want to understand the efficiency difference between depending on multiple opinions from different people versus repeatedly making decisions on my own, here’s a table that shows what I am talking about.

How many… People Repetitions
1 70% 70%
2 49% 64%
3 34% 58%
4 24% 53%
5 17% 48%
6 44%
7 40%
8 36%
9 33%
10 30%
11 27%
12 25%
13 23%
14 21%
15 19%
16 17%

With two people, you are already successful every other time. With three individual  minds, you succeed 2 times out of every 3. With four people participating, you get to 3 wins for every 4, and with five people you are successful in 5 out of 6 attempts.

Because my decisions to change my mind are themselves only 30% efficient, the difference quickly becomes evident. I would have to decide 16 times to get to that same 5 in 6 success rate. No wonder it took me three hours to get dressed in the morning!

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