Intuition is often touted as the best way to make a life changing decision. We need to tune in to our gut feelings, get in touch with our inner purpose and the direction to take will become clear. But is intuition always all it is cracked up to be?
Psychologists distinguish between two types of thinking, System One and System Two. Daniel Kahneman, in his great book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” describes them almost as two characters inhabiting the same person since they work quite independently of each other in different parts of the brain.
System One operates mainly beyond conscious awareness, scanning the environment, making connections between what is around us and our bank of stored memory. It is on the look out for threats or stimuli that need a response. System One comes up with quick intuitive judgements about all our every day decisions (and many of our larger decisions as well). Once System One has decided on an opinion or course of action, it sends signals to the body through “gut feeling”, intuition, bodily sensations and emotions. System One can sort through many memories and emotional connections in a very short space of time, which can lead to uncannily good intuitive decision-making in areas where we have expertise and experience to draw on. We can, however, find ourselves following System One’s directions with very little conscious thought, sometimes entirely on autopilot.
System Two is our conscious, cognitive analysis. If you are asked to calculate 34 x 16 you will need to use System Two to work it out. You would also use System Two to work out which is the best type of stationary to order based on costs, quality, delivery times and features. System Two would also be pretty good at helping you build a complex spreadsheet, based on the data analysis you will need to do. System Two is pretty good at all this logical analysis but it does not do creative, intuitive leaps very well.
System Two is often lazy, and can be easily overloaded with complexity. This leads to all sorts of cognitive bias as we then start to default to System One again.
When we ask System Two to perform a very complex analysis, such as what career would best suit me, what school I should choose for my children or what house I should buy, it sometimes gets overloaded and defers back to System One. System One is not very good at logical analysis, but it is great at substituting an easier question for the difficult one. If we ask System One what career would suit us, it might substitute the easier question of “What career do people like me tend to do?” and then start sifting through the memory banks for familiar careers that appear to be inhabited by similar people.
The Brexit referendum is a good example of a very complex question which most people probably answered using System One thinking. We might have started out trying to use logic and reason to follow the complex arguments about the impact of Brexit on the economy, but since the arguments are so complex that even economists cannot agree, most of us probably defaulted to System One thinking and substituted the easier question of “How comfortable do I feel mixing with people from other European countries?” Having come up with an answer in System One, we then looked for logical arguments to support this answer.
Here are a couple of examples from my life to illustrate:
Yoga Teacher Training
I have been investigating yoga teacher training courses recently. I’ve visited a variety of potential teachers in the last few months to explore my options and been to some interesting and varied classes. It’s a complex decision with many factors to weigh up – cost, time commitment, quality of training, success rate of graduates, likeability of tutors, curriculum, and the thorny question of which profession body to align with.
In the end, my System Two gave up and referred back to System One, which substituted the far easier question of “How did I feel when I was in each teacher’s class?” Well, that made the answer obvious, and so the decision is made! Of course, System Two is now justifying it with all sorts of rational arguments for why the chosen course is actually the best course for me – the residential weekends, the style of yoga, the experience of the teachers – even though none of these features had particularly jumped out at me when I simply looked at information on the website
How to Evaluate the Performance of Our Service
And here is a work-related issue for contrast. We are currently grappling with the complex question of how we evaluate the performance of our teams in work. There are many factors to consider. What data and evidence should we use? How much resource should we invest? What framework should we use? Who really needs to know the answer and what will they do with the information? How will this drive improvement?
The questions are complex and the answers are not obvious. System Two should be working hard to solve this! However, since it is so complex, it is very tempting to let System One take over. Now, System One will never be able to solve these problems, but it can substitute an easier question, which is “How much do I enjoy doing this sort of analysis?” Since the answer is that it is not really my favourite task, System One will send this message back, and System Two will pick it up and start to create a rational answer for the harder question based on my intuitive response. I am likely to argue the case, in all good faith, for putting less of my resource into this task, and genuinely believe my own rational arguments.
Being more aware of cognitive bias and the workings of System One and System Two can help us to recognise the times where System One thinking may not be doing a great job and we need to activate our System Two thinking, even though the analysis is tough. It can also help us to recognise when System Two has reached it’s limits, perhaps because the problem is just too complex to analyse logically, and we need to let System One and our creativity and intuition have a go.