When Intuition is Our First Resort

Intuition is an innate human ability to understand something instinctively without expending time developing a mental process to do so. Thanks to the pioneering work of Messrs Thaler, Sunstein, Tversky, & Kahnemann among others, cognitive biases that drive human decisions have been documented significantly since the latter part of the 20th century. Our ability to intuit is also subject to such cognitive biases, to the point that we are often victims of intuition bias, leading us to make systematic errors in judgement.

This is best explained by the distinction that Kahnemann draws between ‘strong intuition’ and ‘clear intuition’. For example, if one was to ask you to guess the high school GPA of a student who was able to read fluently at the age of 4, most of us would place the student in the higher percentiles of the class. However, we are basing this intuitively on something that is statistically insignificant. Literacy levels of the student at the age of 4 has no bearing on how the student performs in their high school classes.

This is a result of strong, but flawed, intuition. Clear intuition, however, would place the student in the percentile category of an average high schooler with the information presented.

We typically respond to any information in front of us through one of two systems. The first system is intuition and the second system is reasoning. We largely rely on the first system, and find ourselves resorting to reasoning only in situations where the first system is ill-suited, inadequate or insufficient, or our reasoning system isn’t fully convinced of its application. This means the second system monitors the throughput of the first.

The problem arises from the considerable leeway that our first system typically receives. Our ability to intuit is heavily driven by our beliefs, normative rules, conditioning etc., and the second system often finds itself agreeing with the first rather than contradicting it. In short, our intuitive system convinces our reasoning system to go along for the ride (most of the time).

This is an evolutionary trait – we rely more on our gut to remove ourselves from situations of threat or danger, without having to reason our way out of it because of the imminency of said threat or danger

Over centuries, humanity has considerably neutralised such situations of threat. What this means for us is that we find ourselves with a predisposition to deploy intuition that is agreeable with our ability to reason in an unfamiliarly ‘safe’ environment.

The decisions that modern humans make are drastically different from our ancestors

We largely rely on our intuition that is not attuned to the environment. Our ancestors largely dealt with situations that were not as dynamic, and probably did not have to account for a rapidly changing landscape around them in their daily lives.

While the jury is out on whether intuition can be taught, I start from a relatively non-controversial point – we can adapt our ability to intuit to our modern compulsions. Evolutionary intuition makes us think in the extreme (strong intuition) and throws unnecessary variation into decisions that should naturally regress to the mean with more information (clear intuition).

Our intuition is automatic and kicks in when situations do not warrant sifting through multiple, discrete options, and choosing one option. Such situations are quite rare in our everyday lives. How often are we unduly influenced by a recent incident and form opinions with a misplaced sense of confidence? Or let ourselves be driven by a desire to do something, despite all available pointing to more downside than upside? There are plenty more examples to where this comes from.

Practising intuition with due attention and an explicit intention to do so is key to minimising systematic errors in decision making. Both the systems have to work in parallel to help us avoid these errors. That is made possible only through listening to our intuition attentively, and intentionally reasoning what our intuition tells us.

(There is always the option of changing our beliefs, and going against our conditioning, so that our default intuition is well-reasoned to begin with. We all know how easy that is.)

We will eventually hit a sweet spot with our decision making once we manage to do this often enough. I cannot assure you high degrees of success in every endeavour. You will at least not make poor choices that cost you dearly.

And that is worth its weight in gold.

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