Blinking or Thinking?

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Intuition. What is it? A sixth sense? An uncanny hunch? An eerily accurate premonition? Maybe something else entirely? Intuition is a hot topic when it comes to decision making. Previously I pinned an article by Laura Huang that addresses the issue. In this blog post we’ll take a quick look at both sides of the argument.

Firefighting with Klein

Research psychologist Gary Klein, famous for his study of decision making, has lots to say about intuition and writes about it in his books Sources of Power, Streetlights and Shadows, and The Power of Intuition. Klein’s particular interest is to understand how people make quick decisions under tight timeframes and high pressure. To this end, he has turned to firefighters and nurses to try and understand how they make decisions. What Klein discovered was that experts seemed to intuitively know what to do, without having to stop and think about it. Klein’s definition of intuition is ‘the way we translate our experience into action’. He calls this ‘recognition-primed’ decision making. 

Klein isn’t talking about any kind of supernatural insights or spooky knowledge. He’s describing a situation where you know without necessarily understanding how or why you know. But the key point is in his definition: intuition comes out of deep experience.

Blinking with Gladwell

Even if you’ve never heard of Gary Klein, there’s a good chance you’ve come across Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-seller The Tipping Point. In 2005, Malcolm Gladwell released Blink, a book which cites Klein’s research and which has sold millions of copies. In it, Gladwell explores the benefits of listening to your gut instinct when it comes to making judgements. Gladwell is a great storyteller (which is undoubtedly a key reason for his great popularity – even though not everyone is a fan of his writing) and grabs readers’ attention with fascinating and compelling examples of what he terms ‘thin slicing’ – the ability to make an accurate, ‘quick-as-a-blink’ judgement.

Moneyball – analysing the numbers 

But some expert decision makers are highly wary of intuition. The movie Moneyball tells the true story of Billy Beane, a baseball general manager who, together with Peter Brand, an economics graduate, applied a data-driven, computer-enabled approach to identifying talent for the hapless Oakland Athletics baseball team. In one tense encounter, Beane (played by Brad Pitt) has the following exchange with a resentful old talent scout, Grady Fuson:

Fuson: Baseball isn’t just numbers. It’s not science – if it was, then anybody could do what we’re doing. But they can’t, because they don’t know what we know. They don’t have our experience and they don’t have our intuition. You’ve got a kid in there that’s got a degree in economics from Yale. You’ve got a talent scout here with 29 years’ experience. You’re listening to the wrong one…there are intangibles here that only baseball people understand…

Beane: Adapt or die…You don’t have a crystal ball. You can’t look at a kid and predict his future, any more than I can….I’ve listened to you tell those parents, ‘When I know, I know. And when it comes to your son, I know.’ Well you don’t. 

Who’s right?

So, who’s right? How useful is my intuition? Well the answer is, it depends.

I don’t think any of us, if our house was on fire, would want to see the fire crew sitting outside on the grass, conducting some kind of structured brainstorming session to decide how to handle the blaze. In an emergency or crisis, quick, instinctive decision-making is critical.

But what if you and your partner were buying a house and your partner insisted that he didn’t need to go and examine the house in person or wait for a building inspection. He just knew intuitively that this was the right house. Would you be comfortable with that? Or what if you went in for a routine health check and your doctor declared that she just had a feeling that you needed major surgery, and rejected your suggestion that maybe she should undertake some tests or scans to be sure?

Sometimes that quick intuitive judgement call seems appropriate and sometimes not. What’s the difference? Well, in the case of the fire, we can see that there’s a problem, we know that urgent action is required, and we know that we’re not equipped to deal with it. That’s not the case when it comes to buying a house, or submitting to surgery when you feel fine and you haven’t had any tests that indicate something is wrong.

Even experts can misread a situation, or overestimate their insights and knowledge. In the case of Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s, the analytic work revealed insights that couldn’t be picked up instinctively by talent scouts. It came by studying the performance of the team in the aggregate, assembling a list of players who, on their own, didn’t intuitively seem to have what was needed. But the careful statistical analysis of what the team as a whole needed turned the club’s performance around. Oakland set a record for the longest winning streak in the American League with 20 straight games – and forever changed the way that baseball teams went about forming their playing roster.

What about me?

Are you applying that instinctive sense of what to do in situations where you have meaningful expertise? Does your instinct consistently point you in the right direction? Listen to your intuition – it might be revealing insights that you can’t immediately explain. But, if you have time, you should listen to other voices too. Test your intuition against the knowledge (or intuition) of wise friends. Gather data from different sources that don’t necessarily agree with each other. Weigh it up, and make a wise judgement.

I’d love to hear your thoughts (or gut feelings!) Drop a comment in the box below.

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