Playing with intuition

January 1, 2018

 

 

 Kahneman and Klein failed to disagree. Even after eight years of working together on a subject of profound difference between them; the role of intuition in accurate decision-making.

 

They certainly did agree on an existing theory of how intuition was applied to a given situation:

 

“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.”

 

In recognising intuition as something other than a ‘gift’, they were in a position to examine when it could be more accurately applied, and their findings were published under the title “Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree”.

 

Linking intuition with memory made it no surprise that they found no link between confidence in it and its reliability; after all, memory is reconstructive. But then how might we discern how reliable someone’s intuition is?

 

The answer comes from the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:

 

·        An environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

·        An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice.

 

When both these conditions are satisfied, intuitions are likely to be skilled”

 

Reliability of intuition is therefore not vested in a person, or in their confidence, but in how often that person has been in a repeatable situation…

 

“Psychotherapists have many opportunities to observe the immediate reactions of patients to what they say. The feedback enables them to develop an intuitive skill to find the words and the tone that will calm anger, forge confidence, or focus the patient’s attention. On the other hand, therapists do not have a chance to identify which general treatment approach is most suitable for different patients.  The feedback they receive from their patients’ long-term outcomes is sparse, delayed, or (usually) non-existent, and in any case too ambiguous to support learning from evidence.”

 

Clearly, if the psychologist is engaged in moving rocks, there is plenty of immediate feedback. Kahneman and Klein found that, when that was not the case, applying the right set of rules or calculations was much more accurate than an expert’s predictions.

 

There is an algorithm to predict the future value of fine Bordeaux wines from the information available in the year they are made; another for deciding acceptance into the military, and even one for marital stability. Not only are these algorithms more accurate than expert predictions, but they do not have to be complicated in order to work.

 

(For example, marital stability is well predicted by a formula: frequency of lovemaking minus frequency of quarrels.)

 

Why are experts inferior to algorithms? One reason… is that experts try to be clever, think outside the box, and consider complex combinations of features in making their predictions. Complexity may work in the odd case, but more often than not it reduces validity.

 

Another reason… is that when asked to evaluate the same information twice, they frequently give different answers… Experienced radiologists who evaluate chest X-rays as “normal” or “abnormal” contradict themselves 20% of the time.

 

Even Kahneman admits that intuition can add value to these formulae. As far as he is concerned, dismissing intuition is just as much a mistake as trusting it without question.

 

Which brings us back to the question of when intuition is most reliable and how that reliability can be increased.

 

Viewing intuition as a skill, we should trust it most in situations that are as repeatable as possible and in which the decision-maker has as much experience as possible.

 

We can therefore increase the accuracy of our own intuition by spending as much time as possible in the relevant environments and being attentive to whatever outcomes arise.

 

It would be useful to adjust any variables so that we are not seeing exactly the same process every time.

 

And it would be very useful to view the whole process in an open, unstressed manner so that we are not side-tracked by our own emotionality or by allowing our own preferences to unduly blinker what we see.

 

It’s quite a range of specifications, but they are neatly tied together in one word…

 

…it’s called ‘playing’.

 

 

(Excerpts are from ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman 2011)

 

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