The Possibilities and Limitations of Intuition

Intuition is a powerful force of the human mind. And lately intuition-as-desirable-mental-state is having a moment. Books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell have popularized the idea. You don't have to look far to see people espousing the value of intuition. But, as with many popularized ideas, there are misconceptions.

Intuition is thought to have almost magical power. The source of all problems and suffering, it's often believed, is that we don't trust our intuition enough. It's not hard to see why people believe in the power of intuition. When our intuition clicks it feels incredibly true. Truer than true. We get the feeling that everything is just as it must be, which breeds further confidence.

But intuition is automatic - a process our mind undertakes without our conscious bidding. We have a hard time escaping the use of intuition. The feeling of uncertainty and mulling options is one we all know. And it's often framed as a failure to use intuition. But intuition doesn't fail in that way. If there is an intuition to be had, our mind jumps to it unbidden. 

Our minds love certainty so much that if an intuition forces itself into our consciousness we rarely question it even though our minds do produce false intuitive hits. The vast majority of our intuitions are correct. They must be for our mere survival. If you want to know what a person without well developed intuition looks like, watch an infant.

The reason adults must watch infants and small children so closely is specifically because they don't have a well-developed intuition.

The example of a child is a good one. Think of how you'd feel if asked to make judgements about something only an expert could know. How would it feel if you were thrown into an emergency room and asked to diagnose a life-threatening injury, for example?

That's how infants feel about normal life challenges like walking, crossing the street, and using the toilet. Which is why studying expert intuition is a good place to understand the general idea of intuition.

Just as infants must develop intuition about regular things, experts undergo the same process for their area of expertise. Which leads to the main point that must be made about intuition. It's not a magical force any more than everything our minds do is magical. But it is incredible. So what is it? 

Intuition as Recognition

We've all got that one aunt, cousin, or friend who swears that his or her intuition is perfect. They always claim special knowledge. And the validity of their judgement comes from a feeling in their gut. Of course, there is validity in gut feelings, but why is it that your intuitive friend is so often wrong in their intuition?

Well, it makes sense when you understand intuition for what it really is. The psychologist, Herbert Simon, speaking about expert intuition, gives a useful definition:

"The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition."

Intuition is the feeling of instantly recognizing a situation based on cues stored in memory. What's incredible about our minds is the speed at which they work. With enough experience at a certain type of situation, we recognize it before we realize we've recognized it.

A young child learns quite quickly to recognize that a car coming down the street is a danger and that they shouldn't cross. But to become a grandmaster at chess takes thousands of hours of focused practice. But the intuitive judgements of both the child and grandmaster are the same ability -- recognizing intricate patterns. 

Both the child and the grandmaster, by practicing enough, develop the ability to recognize intricate patterns in analogous situations.

While a new chess player will stare, thinking deeply at a chess board looking for patterns, a grandmaster will glance at the same board and immediately know the patterns.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses intuition in detail. In particular, he details the study he undertook with fellow researcher Gary Klein. 

Building on the idea of intuition as recognition, they asked sought to learn when we can trust the intuitive judgements of experts. In doing so, they built a foundation for understanding the acquisition of general intuition.

When Can We Trust Expert Intuitive Judgements 

Kahneman and Klein came to their study from different vantage points. While Klein had studied experts like firefighters and nurses, Kahneman had been focusing on stock pickers and political scientists.

Klein had a high level of respect for experts intuitive judgment. But Kahneman was skeptical. And they eventually found that their two different opinions are easily explained by their different focus.

Stock pickers and political scientists are known for being wrong on their intuitions. Meanwhile firefighters and nurses are famous for being right. So, Kahneman and Klein began to define the conditions for trustworthy expert intuition. And they found two basic conditions for acquiring intuitive skill:

  1. an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable
  2. an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

Let's look at each of these separately.

A Predictable Environment

Think of the child developing intuition about crossing the street.

The basic starting point is the laws of physics -- the ultimate predictability. But the child doesn't have to understand physics at the mathematical level to "get it."

The child learns to recognize that a car won't travel at light speed. They know that a car won't drop out of the sky. And with a bit of practice, they become confident knowing that a car 4 blocks away isn't a threat. Yet, they recognize that one 50 feet away is a threat.

This developing intuition is why a car traveling at double or triple the speed limit poses a threat to safety. A child's car safety intuition is still developing. There's a good chance they haven't built up their defenses against the 'crazy driver' variable yet. They struggle to perceive the threat created by the far away but fast moving vehicle.

In the expert realm think of a political scientist versus an engineer. Again, the engineer is working with the laws of physics, which are stable and predictable. Given normal forces like gravity, the engineer's intuition works fine.  

But the political scientist works with the behavior or millions of people. Creating explanations after-the-fact seems like a valid activity. But making intuitive predictions about events like elections and social movements seems like a fool's game.

The intuitions of a political scientist aren't as reliable as the engineer's, because the environment isn't predictable. Consider the recent election of Donald Trump. Very few political scientists intuited the wave of support for Trump. Only now is the phenomenon being understood.

In an unpredictable environment, it's wise not to trust an expert's intuitive judgements.

Prolonged Practice 

The second basic condition needed to develop useable intuitive insights is practice. Is the skill something that can be practiced over a prolonged period? If it isn't, then we're wise not to trust intuitive judgements on the subject. 

Now, you might think that all experts practice for thousands of hours. It's almost a precondition for expertise. But as Kahneman points out, being an expert isn't one skill. It's the combination of many skills together.

And it's common for experts to be proficient in some skills but novice in others. And here's where it gets dangerous. Being skillful in one domain can lead to hubris about skillfulness elsewhere.

This is where a lot of the false intuitions come from. Think of the aunt who knew your ex 'was no good for you.' An experienced woman would have expert level intuition about the relative suitability of partner selection. She could easily have picked up on such cues from the environment.

But one correct intuition doesn't imply she'll be right the next time. For example, unless she's a doctor, your aunt won't be able to diagnose the sharp pain in your stomach with her intuition.

She has prolonged practice in one area and not the other.

One compelling example of how expert intuition succeeds and fails (provided by Kahneman) is that of the psychotherapist. During live sessions with clients, psychotherapists are in a predictable environment where they can practice for a long time. They receive verbal and non-verbal feedback. They learn how to intuit tone of voice, body language, and other cues. They can read their clients and provide powerful insight. In this realm, the psychotherapist develops expert intuition.

But, once they send their clients away they don't know what will happen in the real world. They are unable to control or even observe that environment. So making intuitive predictions about their clients' future is much more difficult. They are unable to practice. They can't accurately judge how one course of therapy will work or fail, since they can't be there.

How Our Intuition Substitutes One Question for Another

The difficulty in knowing when our intuition is correct comes from an trick played by our minds. Rather than answering the question asked, our minds substitute a different question. 

Answering this different question, we come up with certain answers that might be altogether false. But we have intuitive certainty about the answer our intuition provides.

One of the best examples of this phenomenon is in how we select political leaders. It's a well established fact that most of choose our leader of instantaneously based on a feel or a look. And comically, we typically choose tall men with square jaws.

We should be asking ourselves, "Based on track record, who is the best leader for the job?" Instead, we substitute that question for, "Who is tallest with the squarest jaw?"

Then our intuition comes up with an answer that feels certain.

What All of This Means For Regular Life

While some may dislike the idea of removing intuition from the realm of magic, it's actually empowering. We'll always continue to use intuition. We can't avoid it. But understanding that intuition is a type of deep recognition can empower us to see reality more clearly.

Where we don't have experience, we can recognize that the feeling of intuition is likely a form of substitution. In those situations, we can question the validity of intuitive hits. To get closer to a correct judgement, we can seek out true expert advice and/or use our conscious thinking mind to reach a conclusion.  

Knowing that intuition is recognition, we can also trust fully in our intuitions where we're a) operating in a predictable environment, and b) have had the opportunity to practice over a prolonged period.