Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

Intuition: Friend or Foe?


n.  The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

Intuition Is Your Enemy

Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned from Daniel Kahneman’s work on decision-making is that we should be extremely skeptical of our intuitions.  We all have a subconscious, automatic system of thinking that often produces deviations in judgement, or cognitive biases. These cognitive biases can make us prone to make poor decisions (see my previous post), and produce misleading, contradictory, and even racist intuitions;  all while being completely unaware of what is happening.

IAT_ChartPrejudiced Intuitions

In 1995,  the psychologist Anthony Greenwald created the Implicit Association Test in order to confirm the idea that implicit and explicit memory applies to social constructs and attitudes.   It has been over a decade since this test was created, and the results have been shocking. In a meta-analysis of these tests, it showed that in all 185 of the studies analysed, 70 % of the people showed an implicit social preference for light skin over darker skin. The interesting part is that only 20% self-reported to having this preference. In other words, a majority of people have bias against darker skin, but very few are actually aware of it.  Furthermore, the analysis also showed that these implicit biases are predictive of social behavior.

What does this mean? Everyone has probably heard of or experienced situations where employers have denied a position to an otherwise qualified applicant on the basis of an “expert intuition”. This study suggests that the “expert intuition” may well just be an unconscious, implicit bias towards race, gender or age.

Moreover, evidence against expert intuition goes beyond just implicit associations.  Research shows that for instance political forecasters are no better than ordinary people at predicting events, professional wine connoisseurs cannot tell white wine from red wine in a blind taste test,  and simple mathematical models have proven vastly superior at diagnosing patients than professional psychiatrists.  The body of research is ever-growing and gives us compelling reasons to seriously distrust expert intuitions.

Intuition is Your Friend 

In Blink: The Power or Thinking Without Thinking, journalist Malcolm Gladwell makes the argument that fast, unconscious decisions are a tool for improved decision-making. He says that our mind is excellent at unconsciously spotting patterns from limited windows of experience and sees this phenomenon as a useful skill that should be exploited for our benefit.  In fact, he provides numerous examples of experts using their unconscious intuitions (or “rapid cognition”, as Gladwell calls them) with surprising speed and accuracy. He tells the stories of chess grand-masters able to come up with the perfect counter-move within a couple of seconds of their opponent’s action, of a tennis coach who is able to spot when a player will do  a double-fault moments before the racket even touches the ball,  and of art experts able to differentiate highly elaborate copies of artwork from originals with only an instant of close inspection.


In fact, the study of highly accurate, expert intuition is part a decision-making framework called Naturalistic Decision-Making. NDM researchers usually favor the snap decisions of highly skilled, highly experienced individuals instead of formal analysis and optimal performance models. NDM research shows that in certain environments, these intuitive decisions actually outperform the outcome of  optimal decision models and other formal analyses.


Different Perspectives

What to make of this apparent contradiction? On one hand you’ve got Kahneman and his “Heuristics and Biases” camp advocating skepticism in the face of expert intuition and highlighting the many instances where skilled experts fail miserably.  On the other hand, there is Gladwell, Gary Klein and the NDM crowd showing how intuitive expert decisions are often excellent, sometimes even better than deliberate conscious analysis.

When, if ever, should I trust expert intuitions? When should I trust my intuitions? Are Gladwell’s examples rare anomalies, or do they represent a complex pattern?

The answer to these questions turns out to be simple and elegant. After a few hours of digging through paper after paper looking for a possible way to make sense of this intriguing paradox, I stumbled upon a paper aptly titled A Failure to Disagree. It is co-authored by none other than Daniel Kahneman and Gary A. Klein, the leading advocates of the two decision-making frameworks.  In the paper they explained how the frameworks in which they were operating were two different perspectives of the same phenomenon, not opposing and contradictory views. The paper proposed various conditions with which to judge the validity of intuitive judgement, but I will summarize them in three questions.

Diagnostic Questions to Judge the Value of Intuition

  1. Has this intuitive judgement been made in a predictable environment?
  2. Does this environment provide immediate and accurate feedback?
  3. Do you have solid grounds for saying that this individual has had enough opportunity to learn the regularities of the environment? (sufficient expertise)

If the answer to these three questions is positive, then you have enough information to trust intuitive judgement. If not, you should use your skepticism and be ever wary of cognitive biases in intuitive decision-making.


One of the aims of my Open Source Learning Project is to learn to think critically and make better decisions. My quick experience in the study of intuition taught me something much more profound than just an updated model of decision-making; this experience taught me to look beyond the false dichotomy I instinctively created when confronted with seemingly opposing views. The truth turned out to be very useful, enlightening and even beautiful; but it did require a lot of effort and deep thinking. It could have been much easier to choose the perspective I liked the most and rationalize my decision accordingly. However, choosing to pursue the truth is what gave true understanding of the subject, and that is what’s most important.

Further Reading & Resources

Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions by Gary Klein (Amazon)

Implicit Association Test (free to take)

Talks@Google: Daniel Kahneman (video)

Daniel Kahneman’s experience on working with Klein (video)


3 responses to “Intuition: Friend or Foe?

  1. chakshuRA August 4, 2015 at 12:20 am

    It is quite interesting that you write about a topic that I have been thinking since couple of months – Intuition vs. Expert Judgment vs.Wisdom of the crowds vs. Equations / Models. I am trying to connect the dots from Kahneman’s research, N Taleb’s findings in Black Swan, Scott E Page’s Model Thinking course and an interesting radio program I had heard on NPR that discussed wisdom of the crowds. Would be great to think about when should we rely on one over the other and explore if any research exist that factors all four options. Loved the topic and as always look forward to your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. chakshuRA August 4, 2015 at 12:29 am

    Also not to forget ‘Expert Political Judgment’ by Philip Tetlock. There are some rare gems in that book that are very insightful on this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luis Francisco Contreras August 4, 2015 at 12:40 am

      It is very interesting that you have begun to study the Wisdom of the Crowds. I am very unfamiliar with the topic, so I look forward to seeing a condensation of your thoughts in your blog sometime in the future, maybe?

      Black Swan has been on my amazon wish list for a while but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I actually linked an excerpt of Chapter 5 of Tetlock’s book in this post, but haven’t read the whole thing yet. Your recommendation definitely confirms my desire to read it, so I will do so this weekend and get back to you!

      Liked by 1 person

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