Intuition and decision making – Part1

18 11 2014

We all have intuition. Whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s not uncommon for people to decide something based on their gut feeling, instinct, intuition.

The questions that immediately sprang up in my mind include:

  • Does it always serve us right?
  • How reliable is it?
  • When should we trust it and when should we question it?
  • Why are some people more intuitive than others?

Before trying to answer these questions, let’s start with looking at what intuition actually is. The dictionary says it is “the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.”  It’s what is referred to as System 1 thinking in Daniel Kahneman’s latest best seller – Thinking Fast and Slow. It typically is fast, automatic, effortless, implicit, and emotional.

It also serves the current discussion to differentiate it from “instinct”. Instinct is an instantaneous reaction to a physical environment or situation without any thought put into it. All animals have instinct – so essential for survival. (Intuition vs Instinct)

It’s interesting to note that the past 50 years of scientific research challenges the trust people put on their intuition. It suggests that the more deliberative, slower, conscious, effortful, explicit, and logical System 2 thinking works in the favor of the decision maker. The problem with intuition or System 1 thinking is that it’s influenced by several psychological biases and heuristics, which will lead to incorrect decisions.

But the research results fail to provide conclusive proof of the positive effect of varied strategies to reduce decision biases and encouraging System 2 thinking. The most important pre-requisite for these strategies to work is the awareness of the decision makers of their biases and their willingness to address them to improve their decision-making. On the other hand, for biases which they don’t like to acknowledge, changing the environment to address the bias in play can be a plausible approach Example: addressing the ‘Status quo bias’ by having the desired option as default. (Milkman, Chugh, Bazerman, 2008).

When Malcolm Gladwell brought into the limelight the fabulous “power of thinking without thinking”, by which we make brilliant decisions in the Blink of an eye, I believe many people, including myself, were dazzled.  I feel that it’s written powerfully and extremely engagingly with the purpose of eliciting such response. Sure, he touches upon some of the prejudices and biases that can influence our intuition resulting in misjudgments, but the book fails to clarify when it is right and when it is wrong. In short, this bestselling book doesn’t offer a complete picture and failed to answer my questions.

Personally, I’m a skeptic and have a scientific mind. It’s easier for me to dismiss anything which doesn’t sound logical to me. But of course, it would be a mistake if I do so without investigating or giving it a benefit of doubt. Isn’t it? I believe that despite our strong convictions (or rather because of them), we need to be open to any claim or any new information, and be willing to investigate it to determine its validity. Nevertheless, I’m highly dubious of ideas like “intuitive healing”, which place too much reliance on intuition, make it sound more like magic.  🙂

I think my intuition is not so strong. Actually, I never really thought about it. I’m sure I get certain messages from my intuition but I guess I’m usually not too attentive of them and miss their significance. However, I have come to realize that it’s a mistake. Because, our intuition is a valuable resource, without which our logical analysis will be incomplete.

This makes sense because there is no magic about intuition. It is in fact the result of years of learning, experience, and expertise. We all know that as we gain expertise on something, it becomes automatic. Ex: driving.  Over the time, we don’t consciously exercise our logical mind to do the task but automatically perform it. Intuition is actually based on a lot of cues and subtle information that our subconscious picks up and processes it so fact that our conscious has no idea whatsoever that anything might have actually happened. As such, our stereotypes, prejudices, and other biases which are so ingrained in our psyche manifest themselves in intuition. So, we must always take it with a grain of salt.

Even Hercule Poirot, the master detective who relies on method and intelligence, proclaims “Never ignore your intuition”.  😛 So, the best way to go about it is as Robert Heller puts it – “Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it’s enough”. We should never dismiss it right away because it may be taking into account some important information that your conscious mind is not able to pick up.

Given the nature of intuition – that it’s automatic and comes from without any conscious reasoning process, and the fact that it actually comes from our past experiences or some other subconscious knowledge, we need to take it into account. But test it against data. If you don’t have enough data to dismiss it, gather more data.

Note: This is a continuation of an earlier post on Effective decision-making.




One response

19 11 2014

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