Triumphs of intuition

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“Going with your gut” – part 3

Paramedics have to make life or death decisions in the blink of an eye every day. Novices tend to follow simple rules in these situations, which work well up to a point. But with experience paramedics begin to make better, faster decisions, without any conscious awareness of the rules they are following. These decisions appear to be based on “gut feeling”: knowing what to do without knowing how you know.1

Along a similar vein, chess grandmasters are able to identify and decide on the best moves incredibly rapidly, moves which mediocre players may not even spot at all.2 but this ability to make astoundingly accurate judgements in the blink of an eye isn’t limited to experts. we all do it every day: when we judge what someone else is feeling from their facial expressions, or catch a ball without doing any complex physics calculation.3


How are these triumphs of intuition possible?

The environments in which chess players and paramedics make their decisions are very different, but share two key similarities. First, they are both fairly regular: there are identifiable cues and patterns of actions leading to outcomes. From certain moves or patterns of moves in chess you can predict fairly reliably what the response will be. For most casualties there are known methods of treatment. Second, both provide fairly good and fast feedback. A chess player will find out pretty quickly whether his move was a good one or not; a paramedic can tell whether their treatment has worked by looking at the patient’s response.

When there is sufficient regularity and good feedback, a person can begin to recognise patterns in the environment through prolonged experience and practice. The chess player slowly begins to recognise patterns of moves that work, the paramedic recognises courses of action fit for a unique case based on past experience of similar cases. This ability to recognise patterns becomes automated and subconscious, explaining the phenomenon of “knowing without knowing how you know”.4

What about the fast and subconscious judgements we make on a daily basis? Catching a ball might not seem all that extraordinary, but consider the following observation made by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene:

“When a man throws a ball high in the air and catches it again, he behaves as if he had solved a set of differential equations in predicting the trajectory of the ball. He may neither know nor care what a differential equation is, but this does not affect his skill with the ball.”

It doesn’t seem all that plausible that this is what a four year old child does when a ball is thrown at him, especially when we consider what’s involved. In theory, the path a ball takes when thrown is a parabola: so estimating this would require the brain to estimate the ball’s initial distance, velocity, and projection angle – plus the speed and direction of the wind at each point in order to take into account air resistance and spin. All within a few seconds. If people could actually do this, we’d also expect them to be good at predicting where a ball will strike the ground when thrown. But they’re not.

Simple rules of thumb

Is there an alternative explanation? Experimental studies show that in fact what’s going on here is the use of several different rules of thumb, one of which is the gaze heuristic: fix your gaze on the ball, start running, and adjust your running speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant. By subconsciously using this rule, people are able to catch balls without measuring distances, angles or air resistance: in fact, without really thinking at all.5

The use of simple rules of thumb or heuristics explain many of the quick decisions and judgements we’re able to make in everyday life. We infer people’s emotions and preferences from their facial expressions using rules of thumb like “people who smile a lot are happy”, and “the chocolate bar she’s staring at is the one she wants.”

So it appears that in some situations, intuitive judgements can help people to make good decisions and save a great deal of time. “Going with your gut” can save lives if you’re an experienced paramedic and don’t have the time for detailed and deliberative reasoning. This seems to directly contradict earlier results: that our intuitions can’t be trusted, and where expert intuitions were repeatedly outdone by a simple formula.

When can you trust your gut?

Let’s first take a step back. I’ve been talking a lot about “gut feelings” and “intuitions”. But what are we really referring to here? Gerd Gigerenzer, a German psychologist who has spent a large amount of his career studying “gut feelings”, puts it more eloquently than I could:

”I use the terms gut feeling, intuition, or hunch interchangeably, to refer to a judgement that appears quickly in consciousness, whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, and is strong enough to act upon.” 5

These judgements seem to arise in one of two ways. In the case of expert judgement, they develop as a result of prolonged practice and experience. Everyday intuitive judgements, on the other hand, arise through the application of rules of thumb appropriate for the environment. 4

In order to judge whether an intuition is trustworthy, we need to consider both the environment in which the judgement is being made, and the person making the judgement.

On the whole, we’d expect intuitive judgements to be trustworthy when:

  1. The environment is sufficiently regular that there are patterns which can be recognised through experience.

  2. The person making the judgement has enough experience in the environment to recognise these patterns.

  3. There’s enough quick, accurate feedback, that a person can learn from mistakes through experience.

Next time you or someone else have a “gut feeling” about something, it’s worth using these points as a checklist to help decide whether you should go with it or not.

What does this mean for career choice – should you trust your gut, or not? Find out in part 4…

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“Going with your gut” – part 1 & part 2

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References and Notes

  1. Wyatt, A. (2003), “Paramedic practice – knowledge invested in action”, Journal of Emergency Primary Health Care, 1, 3-4 

  2. deGroot, A. D. (1978). Thought and choice in chess. The Hague: Mouton. 

  3. For more on this see Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” and Gerd Gigerenzer’s “Gut Feelings” 

  4. Kahneman, D., Klein, G. (2009) “Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree”, American Psychologist, Vol 64, 6, 515-526 

  5. Gigerenzer, G. (2007). Gut Feelings: Short Cuts to Better Decision Making, Penguin Books