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The Gordian Knot of Complexity

The literature on leadership suggests that one of the characteristics of effective leaders is a bias toward action. In contrast, poor leadership is often associated with a ‘paralysis of analysis’ in which leaders are unable to act while they weigh all the variables and possibilities that will potentially impact the outcome of a choice. This paralysis often results in loss of opportunities in a dynamic environment where the windows of opportunity are opening and closing.

The penchant for action is illustrated in the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. The Gordian Knot is a metaphor for a complex problem that is intractable when approached by conventional analytical means (i.e., by disentangling it). However, the problem may be easily solved through decisive action (i.e., cutting the knot with a sword).

Many decisions that we make may be effectively Gordian Knots (e.g., buying a house, choosing a career, choosing a mate, deciding to have a family, managing a humanitarian crisis). There are so many factors to consider, the options are so disparate that making comparisons is extremely difficult, and there are often an uncountable number of options to consider (e.g, the perfect house may go on the market tomorrow, interest rates might change).

In addition, there are finite windows of opportunity for effective action (e.g., someone else might buy the house you wanted). Recognizing the challenge of these Gordian Knots, Walker Percy wrote “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.” Percy knew that this secret belief could result in a ‘paralysis of analysis’ that would ensure a sad and difficult life.

In fact, this paralysis of analysis is exactly what Damasio observed with people with damage similar to Phineas Gage.  For example, here is Damasio’s description of one of his patients with ventromedial prefrontal lobe damage:

I was discussing with the … patient when his next visit to the laboratory should take place. I suggested two alternative dates, both in the coming month and just a few days apart from each other. The patient pulled out his appointment book and began consulting his calendar. The behavior that ensued, which was witnessed by several investigators, was remarkable. For the better part of a half-hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates: previous engagements, proximity to other engagements, possible meteorological conditions, virtually anything that one could reasonably think about concerning a simple date…. He was now walking us through a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences. It took enormous discipline to listen to all of this without pounding on the table and telling him to stop, but we finally did tell him, quietly, that he should come on the second of the alternative dates. His response was equally calm and prompt. He simply said: “That’s fine.” Back the appointment book went into his pocket, and then he was off.

This clearly illustrates the problem of conventional analytical models of rationality based in logic or normative economic models when faced with the complexities of everyday life. They lack a ‘stopping rule.’

The analytic models provide a means for doing the computations, for processing the data, for making comparisons, but the computations will continue blindly as long as data is being fed in. Typically, there are no intrinsic criteria for terminating the computation in order to act. In contrast, heuristics such as those described by Gigerenzer typically have explicit stopping rules. Thus, one of the advantages of heuristics relative to more normative approaches is that heuristics are typically recipes for action, rather than processes for doing computations.

We hypothesize that these intuitive heuristics are the foundations for common sense! They are the swords that allow us to solve the Gordian Knots of everyday life.

In many situations, the quality of the outcome may depend on acting to make the choice right, rather than on waiting to act until the right choice is certain. 


Percy, W. (1966). The last gentleman. New York: Picador.

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Penguin Books. (p. 193-194)

Gigerenzer, G. (2007). Gut feelings. The intelligence of the unconscious. New York: Penguin Books.

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