The Familiarity Conundrum

Earlier this year, my younger son got admitted to the same preschool that the older one attended in SF. As parents, we were elated! Our older one loved this school, we know the Principal and teachers really well, and it significantly reduces uncertainty for us given this school goes up to Middle. A win-win in every respect!

Except, we were caught completely off-guard by how the first few weeks turned out. That the kid was having “adjustment issues” would be an understatement. Everything from sleep schedules & toilet training to eating & social behavior went majorly South. While this is normally expected when kids change schools, what surprised me was how much this derailed us as parents. We were maniacally struggling to manage the kid in this transition while trying to cope with all the mood swings & changes this was bringing to our daily routine.

Of course, things started improving after a couple of months & as we speak, the kid seems all settled in the new environmentšŸ¤žšŸ½. But I couldn’t stop introspecting on why we got caught so off-balance in this episode, even when we knew the school intimately & had gone through this exact experience before with our older one?

This was a manifestation of what I call the Familiarity Conundrum. When we deal with things we are intimately familiar with, there is a double-edged sword at play. While familiarity arms us with high-fidelity, experiential data that can be incredibly useful in making a smart decision, it also creates overconfidence-driven blind spots in our ability to deal with the familiar.

In highly familiar situations, our brain tends to short-circuit the decision-making process, perhaps gathering comfort from past anecdotal experience regarding similar situations. The result is a quick decision based on 1st order thinking. We went through this in the above school episode – our brains used a quick, 1st order heuristic – “because this school was so great for our older son, it will be equally good for our younger one too”. We failed to ask even a basic set of questions regarding this decision eg. are the teachers the same this year, is our younger son starting at the same age as the older one, should we expect any changes to the school routines post-Covid etc. These are basic diligence questions that we would have definitely tried to answer had this been an unfamiliar school for us.

This Familiarity Conundrum often leads to sub-optimal decisions in other aspects of life as well. Some examples that I have personally experienced or witnessed:

  • When hiring someone we are highly familiar with eg. an ex-colleague or classmate, our brain tends to unfairly magnify our last, dated view of their strengths, not pushing us enough to evaluate them independently, especially with respect to fit with the current opportunity.
  • When a trusted person introduces us to a deal, say an investment opportunity, our brain wrongly transfers trust with the referrer onto the referred deal, without a rigorous evaluation of the deal on a stand-alone basis as well as the referrer’s true competence in the specific area being evaluated.
  • When operating in an area where we have prior work experience, we tend to under-diligence the opportunity & overestimate our likelihood of success. In areas of perceived expertise, our brain doesn’t push hard enough on 2nd & 3rd order thinking like figuring out ways in which this context is different from our prior experience, trying to see around corners for lurking risks etc.

So what can we do to effectively deal with this Conundrum? Based on what I have learned from my experience as well as studying great rationalists like Charlie Munger, here are a few ideas:

1/ First step is spotting it at the right time – training your mind to spot times when familiarity could be creating blind spots for you, is itself a major part of keeping biases at bay. Personally, I tend to keep a matrix of such mental models both layered in my head as well as often as part of a diligence checklist. For decisions that cross the bar of impact and/or irreversibility, I like to run them through this matrix to check for potential blind spots.

2/ Don’t deviate from the “checklist” – Dr. Atul Gawande argued for the importance of checklists as a tool to make surgeries safer in his popular book “The Checklist Manifesto – how to get things right“. Professionals as diverse as surgeons, pilots & public market investors leverage checklists to handle uncertainty & make better decisions under stress.

The key is not deviating from your operating process even when the context is highly familiar and your brain is pushing you to use crude heuristics to arrive at a quick decision. Like a pilot who will diligently run through the aviation checklist even on the best-weather days, one needs to strive to do the same, each time, every time while taking high-impact decisions.

3/ Always have an independent feedback mechanism – even in areas where you believe you have deep knowledge and/or extensive on-ground experience, it’s always good to get feedback from independent players who are likely to see the opportunity in an unbiased way.

During my early days as an angel investor, I had a tendency to predominantly rely on my own judgment of a startup & often made decisions without taking the time to gather feedback from other sources. Having learned from several missteps, I have now incorporated gathering feedback from several sources including market experts, customers, founder references & other investors, as a core part of my investing process.

In this context, I find the idea of having a “feedback buddy” incredibly useful. For important projects eg. buying a house, a product launch, a big investment, it’s good to have someone who is unrelated to the project be a sounding board to bounce off ideas, poke holes in current thinking & simply provide common-sense feedback.

The bottom line is this – as opposed to explicitly unfamiliar terrain where our natural survival mode gets alerted, familiar contexts are significantly more likely to get our brains in “lazy thinking” mode, creating blind spots that will catch us off-guard. Proactively spotting this dynamic, having the discipline to stick to a rigorous process at all times & consciously incorporating an independent feedback mechanism within it, goes a long way in offsetting this Familiarity Conundrum.

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Author: Soumitra Sharma

Operator-Angel I Product Leader I US-India corridor I Believer in Power Laws I Love building & learning

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