Intuition and Lazy Questions

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.

System, Network, News, Connection

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.

The Downside of Following Your Gut

We are often told to follow our gut these days.  It’s not bad advice either!

I think some of the best decisions I have made were based on a strong intuitive sense that something was right for me.  After a lot of mulling over options and chronic indecision, my husband and I made up our minds to move to Wales quite suddenly, after spending a lovely afternoon in a garden in Wales.  We just had a flash of inspiration, and made the move within a few months.  An opportunity came up for a secondment at work, and it absolutely felt like the right thing to do; I didn’t need to analyse it.  I started writing again after a break of several years, after an insight that came to me while meditating; I stood up and knew that I needed to be doing something creative, and I started writing the next day.  All three of these decisions were absolutely right for me.

Gut feeling is the limbic brain’s signal to us, based on it’s subconscious analysis of the options open to us.  And true, listening to our own intuition can often help us to tune into what we really want, and develop a clearer sense of the right choice for us at this particular time.  Intuition has been shown to be just as effective a way to make a complex decision as rational analysis.

Psychology, Mind, Thoughts, Thought

However, psychologists have found a few cognitive biases that we are all prone to and we need to watch out for, especially when we are relying on intuitive decision making. The neural pathways in our brains develop in such a way that these biases are inevitable, as the more well used a pathway is, the easier it is for our brain to continue to use the same pathway. Simply being aware of these biases might help you to spot them in your own thinking patterns, and avoid falling into these common traps.

  1. The Familiar

We tend to favour the familiar over the unfamiliar.  We favour jobs that are quite similar to other jobs we have had.  We are more likely to take a job in place we know or take on a course with a college we have studied at previously.  If we are struggling with a problem at work, we will tend to favour the tried and tested solution rather than looking for a new way to solve it.  Sometimes, we just favour the status quo over making a change.  I know that I will certainly stay in a job unless I am pretty sure that the new job is considerably better than the old.  So, if you are struggling to make a decision, and one option is very familiar, while the other is less so, perhaps you should choose the unfamiliar option; your brain is has probably already overrated the familiar option and underrated the unfamiliar option when weighing them up.

2. The Default

We are also more likely to follow the “default” option.  If it is assumed that every employee will take out an occupational pension, unless they fill in a long form to say they do not want to, then the take-up will tend to be high.  If employees are assumed not to want a pension unless they fill in the form, then take-up will be lower.  If you find yourself clicking the button for the default option on your computer, or accepting the status quo rather than returning a form, just ask yourself – does the person or organisation who set up this default have your best interests at heart?  Do they know better than you do what the right option for you is?  (Sometimes, especially with computer programmes, the default genuinely is the best option for the average user; sometimes, however, the default option has been set up to suit someone who wants to sell us something or manipulate us).

3. The Crowd

If we do not have a strong opinion about something, we are very likely to simply follow the crowd.  This is not always a bad thing; after all, there are likely to be people in the crowd who know more about the options that you do, especially if you are pretty clueless.  But if you find yourself mindlessly following the crowd, do check in with yourself.  Is it likely that most of the crowd are able to make a better decision that you are in this situation, and that your needs are similar to most other people in the crowd?  If not, don’t follow them!

4.  The Plan

Simply asking people whether they intend to do something actually increases the likelihood that they will do it and getting them to think through how they will do it increase the chances of them doing it even more.  If you write down a plan for how you will find out about a course that you want to do, work out the route to the open day, think about what you will wear and what you will do when they get there, you are much more likely to follow through on your plan.  If you already have a plan to do something, make sure you are not over-committed.  Is this plan still the best option for you?

5. Confirmation

Once we think we know something, we look for information to confirm our beliefs and we discount other information.  If you already think you are no good at Maths, you will look for further evidence to corroborate this belief (maybe the test that went badly, or what a teacher said to you three years ago) rather than focusing on the evidence that might contradict your belief (the teacher that told you could pass with a little bit more work).  This is why people tend not to change their political or religious beliefs very often.  We often need to really work at being open to information that contradicts our beliefs.

6. Overconfidence

We usually tend towards optimism and overestimate our abilities and chances of success (unless we are prone to depression, in which case we tend to have a more accurate view).  Most of us find it hard to accurately assess our own potential and how likely we are to succeed.  Optimism can be very valuable in building resilience and the persistence to keep trying in the face of initial failure, but it doesn’t always lead to accurate predictions about the future.  When we are overconfident we may fail to take sensible preventative steps or develop contingency plans.  It’s great to be optimistic, persistent and resilient, but there is no harm in having a back up plan!

7. Loss

We hate loss.  And this tends to create inertia.  Psychologists have found that we are roughly twice as unhappy about losing something as we would be happy about gaining it.  Once we have something, we value it more than we would have done if we didn’t have it.  This is why free trials work so well; once we have that premium subscription to a service, we value it more and don’t want to cancel our subscription.  So, once you have been offered a job or a college place, you value it more than you did before the interview.  That is why it can be so hard to say no to a job offer.

8.  Short-Term

We are also very prone to valuing short-term gains over longer-term benefits (even more so if we are teenagers).  The short-term gain of earning some money to spend now often outweighs the longer term gain of studying for qualifications which may help us earn more money in the distant future.  Most of us could do with a little help to remind us to prioritise our longer-term goals – pensions, fitness, career development, savings, qualifications and so on.

For a bit more reading on this fascinating topic, try:

  • Thaler & Sunstein – Nudge
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink
  • Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow