Important decisions such as who we should marry, whether to take a job or not, are often made based on intuition, we do not simply weigh pros and cons. Something else influences our decision.
Gerd Gigerenzersays that it is capacities that have evolved over thousands of years – our ability to trust, imitate and love. Computing the optimal solution for a problem relies on techniques where “all the factors” are known. Gigerenzer provides an alternative to the view of the mind as a cognitive optimizer, and a cognitive miser. In contrast to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverski who suggested that intuition fails to respect rules of logic and thus make people prone to biases and mistakes, Gigerenzer sees it as tool that has adapted through evolution.
Hunches may provide powerful insights into an issue, adding a fresh perspective or leading to new ideas and suggestions. Judges may uses hunches when they make a decision, there is wisdom in lack of knowledge, and more information may not always be better.
Yet it is vital to be aware of the limits of intuition. This is a question that Ludwig Wittengenstein used to give to is students to help them explore the limits of intuition. If you are a dressmaker or mathematicians, you may get it right. If you are neither, you might struggle to get close to the answer, and even worse, you may just like me, struggle to understand how the answer can be right!
You want to tie a string around the Earth. You stretch the string round it tightly.
Now remove the string and add 1 metre to its length.
Wrap the string round the Earth again, such that it is equidistant from the surface all the way round.
What is the height of the string above the Earth’s surface?
- Can you slip a hair under it?
- A credit card?
- Could you trip over it?
Let us assume the Earth is a perfect sphere. And you find the answer here.
This example shows that intuition is not a mysterious kind of thinking. The dressmaker and the mathematician has experience of these kinds of problems and they use it solve the problem.
It is also easy to believe that certain rules lead to something predicable. And here our intuition may be wrong again. John Conway’s Game of Life is an example of when something different may happen.. The inspiration of this blog post comes from Brian Eno’s “The Limits of Intuition”, from the book “This Explains Everything” edited by John Brockman. Warmly recommended.
Photo “Plastic Rope” by Feelart