Counterintuition Used as Thinking Inspiration

A counterintuitive proposition is one that does not seem likely to be true. Using your intuition or gut feeling it simply does not make sense.

brunette girl making funny face

Brunette girl making funny face on white background. Joy concept

Carefully study the picture below. What do you see? Please, wait for a minute before you answer


It makes sense to believe that there a specific cluster in the picture. We are prone to believe that the random distribution are non-random  – clustering illusion.

Many scientifically discovered theories are often called counterintuitive when intution and  emotions tell us that the suggestion is wrong. Many aspects of general relativity may sound counterintuitive to a non-physicist while a physicist with his or her focus on this aspect of the world may consider it to be intuitive concepts.

Use this list of things that we take for granted to prepare an imaginary mini Ted-Talk about counterintuition. What is a mini-Ted talk?  We could define it as a 5 minute speech.

  • During WWII,  Abraham Wald was asked to help the British decide where to add armor to their bombers. Abraham, a statistician, had only data from planes that returned to Britain, and he  recommended adding more armor to the places where there was no damage.
  • Be willing to start all over again to create something better – self-sabotage to prevent yourself from being complacent.
  • Bottling up your anger may be good (there is a link between anger and biological risks factors for heart disease).
  • 0.99999  . . . equals 1
  • Repeating self-help mantras such as I am a lovable person can do more harm than good.
  • Repeat mistakes until you really learn the lesson. It is tricky to learn something worthwhile after just one try.

    Can you think of situations when the counterintuitive quotes makesr sense? And can you think of any more counterintuitive examples? Click here for inspiration.

    Tips for making a great TED-talk can be found here. It is  a great thinking exercise to imagine that you have to deliver a speech. It helps to focus your attention on vital aspects and to search for ways to deliver a strong message.


Thin-slicing : the power of intuition – Thinkibility Boost


Building up Intuition is “thin-slicing”

In an earlier post,  we discussed the relation between Reasoning and Intuition on the basis of Kahneman’s two interrelated thinking systems. One is fast, intuitive reactive and emotional. The other is slow, deliberate, methodical and rational. Although he acknowledges that the mind functions thanks to a delicate, intricate and sometimes difficult balance between the two systems, his book Thinking, Fast and Slow is mainly about biases of intuition. And to prevent them, we ought to be less thinking-lazy. That is to say that we must mobilize more often System 2: the laborious process of analysis. We recommended this book in our post Reasoning versus Intuition.

Basically, from childhood on a mindset is stamped in the brain “Don’t trust your Intuition”. It is a result of the scientific revolution. The result is that intuition is highly undervalued. But there are many situations where there is no room for rational thinking, yet there have to be an action, a judgement  or a decision. In such a situation the use of intuition is a last resort and we had better to be trained for it.

  • there is too little information available
  • there is too much information
  • the situation is too complex to analyse methodically
  • a quick reaction is required
  • a situation wherein someone is overwhelmed by emotions

There are also many positives of using intuition:

  • it allows for a much broader and sensitive exploration of a subject or situation
  • it can grasp soft notions about a subject or intangible aspects
  • it is very useful in situation when something cannot be caught in words
  • it draws on valuable experience
  • non-verbal clues (smell, taste, bodily signals) are mostly not available in language
  • it is less likely to get caught up in red herrings or distractions
  • there is no need  for justification (that is per definition impossible and not to trust anyway if tried)

There are not merely advantages of intuitive thinking. Sometimes it even outperforms rational systematic thinking.

In an earlier blog post Inteligent Gossip by the Watercooler we mentioned already Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, a 2005 book by Malcolm Gladwell. It is all about  mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. Although a substantial part of his book is addressing the pitfalls of intuitive thinking such as priming and stereotypes we recommend this book because it illustrates the powerful performance of what Gladwell calls “Thin-slicing“.

Thin-slicing or Rapid Cognition refers to the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. It is the power of knowing in the first two seconds. It is a system in which our brain reaches conclusions without immediately telling us that it is reaching conclusions. Whenever we meet someone for the first time, we interview someone for a job, we react to a new idea or face with a decision quickly and under stress we use this “split second” system. When we leap to a decision or have a hunch, our unconsciousness is sifting through the situation in front of us, throwing all that is irrelevant while we zoom in on what really matters. However, it is buried somewhere in our unconscious, and we couldn’t dredge it up.

This skill is not  magically given to a couple of fortunate people. It is a skill that we can all cultivate by ourselves. Snap judgement and first impressions can be educated and controlled. It is possible to learn when to listen and when to be wary of it.

Below are some examples of Thin-slicing:

  • By a “Blink of an Eye” an art historian outperformed months of scientific analysis of a piece of art that turned out to be a forgery.
  • In an experiment with manipulated game cards sweat glands below the skin in the palms of hands of gamblers were measured.  It proved that they knew unconsciously forty cards before they were able to say that they the cards were manipulated. But moreover, they begun to behave accordingly to their unconscious stress reactions, long before they became consciously aware of what adjustments to make.
  • Marriages have a distinct pattern, a kind of DNA that surfaces in any case of meaningful interaction. After training it is possible to “read” or “decode” those patterns and predict divorce within 3 minutes, without  asking husbands and wives questions about the state of their marriage. In another experiment non-experts were given a list of emotions to look for. They predicted with better than 80 percent accuracy which marriages were going to make it.
  • It showed that in a hospital that more information did not lead to better diagnoses. Actually, the role of much in itself relevant factors was small in determining what was happening. An accurate diagnosis could be made without them. It showed also that many times doctors would do better if they knew less about their patients. The very desire for confidence by doing more tests and gathering more information from the patient was precisely what ended up undermining the accuracy of their diagnosis.
  • In an electronic war game one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five out of six amphibious ships were sent to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in the span of just one hour, resulting in the virtual death of over 20.000 US service personnel. It showed the failure of a doctrine which is called Information Dominance: databases and matrices and methodologies for systematically understanding the intentions and capabilities of the enemy. The conducting of a thoroughly rational and rigorous analysis that covered every conceivable contingency apparently destroyed the capabilities of rapid cognition.

First impressions are notorious difficult to put into words. Some people always make a note of the first word that goes through their heads. In others a visual image  imposes itself automatically. Some people  get it hot or cold. Others experience abdominal or stomach spasm.  Others experience a strong emotion or get dizzy. 

Sliced kiwi

The information is in a thin-slice

It is interesting to ponder about the consequences of living in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. That it is much easier to listen to scientists and lawyers because they could provide pages and pages of documentation and conclusions than “reading your inner state”. 

Could we design “structures of spontaneity” where improvisation, without a script or a plot,  and reacting to the environment is less calculated and rationalized but instead promote picking up instinctively  a truth?

Could we develop intuition systematically?

Intuition Explains Everything!


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.

You can read more about intuition and experts here and here.

Photo “Plastic Rope” by Feelart

Reasoning versus Intuition

Many people regard Reasoning the opposite of Intuition. Reasoning is rational thinking using logic, while Intuition is unconscious, a paranormal gift, a magical awareness not accessible for normal humans, or a connectivity to an all knowing esoteric field.

However, psychologists have proposed a dual-process theoryof the mind. The output of “thinking” could be the result of two hypothesized processes. Often, the two processes consist of an implicit (automatic), unconscious process and an explicit (controlled), consciousprocess.

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow,  summarizes research that he conducted over decades about human thinking errors.

He assumes that System 1 recognizes patterns from the associative memory. System 1 is lazy, biased, automatic, and performs nearly effortless. It produces quirks, ideas, feelings, foolish thoughts, inappropriate impulses, intuitive judgements, extreme predictions and planning fallacies. It provokes overconfidence.

A hypothesized System 2 is involved in deliberate Reasoning. It focuses attention, but is not effortless. The activating of System 2 processes can be perceived by dilated pupils and increased arousal. The function of System 2 is to prevent disastrous outcomes of System 1 processes, however  the performance of System 2 is rather poor. It has a limited ability, has to be used deliberately and is slowly. It monitors System 1, endorses, rationalizes and apologizes for the output of System 1. Because of the flaws System 1 could produce it has many tasks to do: controlling System 1, improving, comparing, recognizing errors and perception of risks. The main purpose of System 2 is to prevent the laziness of System 1 in assuming that what you see is all there is.

Some scientists assume that System 1 and System 2 are physically different located in the brain. Also, that System 1 is evolutionary older than System 2. System 1 developed as a need of Early Humans for fast Fight or Flight decisions, closely linked to sympathetic nervous system.

In order to prevent the systematic errors System 1 produces, especially in complex reasoning tasks, Kahneman stresses that we need to reflect on our thinking processes. He concludes that we have developed poor tools, that we are missing a vocabulary to think and to communicate about our thinking. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, there are some hilarious examples of this Thinking Vocabulary.

Some concepts Kahneman mentions, all responsible for several biases, are

  • Duration neglect – the neglect of the duration of an episode in determining its value
  • Framing effect – drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how or by whom that information is presented.
  • Anchoring: the tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on a past reference or on one trait or piece of information when making decisions.
  • Loss aversion – the disutility of giving up an object is greater than the utility associated with acquiring it.
  • Zero-risk bias – preference for reducing a small risk to zero over a greater reduction in a larger risk.
  • Halo effect – the tendency for a person’s positive or negative traits to “spill over” from one area of their personality to another in others’ perceptions of them
  • Peak-end rule: that people seem to perceive not the sum of an experience but the average of how it was at its peak (e.g. pleasant or unpleasant) and how it ended.

Especially noteworthy are:

  • Base rate fallacy or base rate neglect – the tendency to base judgements on specifics, ignoring general statistical information, and
  • Planning fallacy – the tendency to underestimate task-completion times.

A remedy against these cognitive biases, is Reference Class Forecasting, which predicts the outcome of a planned action based on actual outcomes in a reference class of similar actions to that being forecast.

Research into decision making has a long tradition in looking for errors in rational reasoning, and is heavenly grounded in rationalism. That is, the notion that the only way to knowledge is by rational and logical reasoning. However, last decades there has been a reassessment of the -assumed dominant negative- role of intuition in decision making. We will explore this in another blog post.

Photo: “Season Trees” by njaj

Innovation and Intuition

A buzzword like innovation tends to lure us into false security. It is tempting to believe that innovation is simply something that you can inject into an organisation.  Today, every company says that it got innovation. The definition of the term varies from inventing a new product that has never existed to turning an overlooked commodity into a consumer snack like Craisins. Often the term is used to describe what is seen as “a very good product”.

But what is it? And what do you do? Set of rules for innovation can be contrasted with an approach that allows intuition and serendipity to play a part in the innovative process. Treating creativity either as something that simply happens or only happens in a structured way is perhaps not a fruitful approach. Each and everyone of us may have a personal preference for a certain approach, yet awareness of when to use creativity techniques and tools and when to rely on intuition is necessary.

Designing a framework for innovation where tools are used does not mean that there is no room for intuition. A mixture is good. Understanding of positive and negative aspects of different approaches helps us utilize the different approaches. Treating structure or serendipity as the enemy of creativity is not fruitful.

A framework for setting objectives and managing expectations is a necessary step in an innovation. Yet an idea may suddenly hit us that are not the fruit of a conscious use of a creative session. We may “feel” that this is right. An intuition is a perception of something that is beyond our “normal” range, yet still close enough to make us feel that something is sensible. It can be something that we usually take for granted without considering what we mean when we are referring to it – lacks a clear definition.

Intuition is often regarded as being independent of any reasoning process. Previously the term was often linked to the word irrational. Today, this narrow view has changed and intuition can refer to the skill that people use to making fast decisions. We can use intuition to know which solution we are going to use to make decisions.

Intuitively we may know that there is a connection between innovation and intuition. The creativity stimulus theory of Roger von Oech suggests that would-be innovators regard problems and opportunities from four distinct, apparently inconsistent perspectives. Roger von Oech suggests that the creative process consists of our adopting  roles, each of which embodies a different type of thinking.

  • Explorer –  a  thinker needs the raw materials from which new ideas are made: facts, experiences, knowledge, concepts, feelings and whatever else he or she can find.
  • Artist –  experiment with a variety of approaches,  follow intuition, rearrange, ask what-if questions and look for hidden analogies.
  • Judge –  evaluate and critically weigh the evidence, look for drawbacks in the idea
  • Warrior –  take the idea into battle to make sure that it succeeds –  may have to overcome excuses, idea killers, and other obstacles.

Regardless of the perspective, intuitive judgement may be needed to separate the good from the bad. A systematic approach may sometimes fail to illuminate the way to sound decisions. But it is crucial to be awareness of when different approaches to innovation are being used.  A premature judgement is the enemy to the creative process. In a similar way as a too rigid reliance on using tools can result in rigid decisions.

According to Hogarth intuition relies on

  • The capacity for visualization
  • The skill to acknowledge feeling and learn from them
  • The willingness to speculate and consider alternatives
  • The habit of testing perceptions, emotions, and speculations

And so does innovation.

Photo: “Hand Touching Ideas Button” by Stuart Miles

Thinking in Images


Most people think in words. When asked to imagine a traffic accident they come up with not very detailed descriptions, in comparison with people who are thinking in pictures. It became even worse if the words are becoming more and more abstract. Words as society, market, law, inflation etc. stay for them just words; they are unable to convert the words into images. Picture thinkers don’t have to translate, they think in pictures.


As school systems are mainly auditory-sequential oriented, it is not surprising that mainly visual-spatial thinkers will have problems at school. Usually, they encounter learning difficulties. But not only at school. Most picture thinkers don’t fit well in traditional companies and institutions. They do things in other ways than expected or “normal”, due to “weaknesses” in thinking.


Picture thinkers are also called right-brainers, as some popularisations oversimplify the science about lateralization, by presenting the functional differences between hemispheres as being more absolute than is actually the case.


We have also committed to this theoretical sloppiness with left/right brain generalisations, although, a handy mini theory to generate creative ideas as we have demonstrated in Blocking the Left Brain Functions.

As we wrote in left brain/right brain thinking, the debate regarding about what goes on in our left and right brain hemispheres seems like a never-ending story. You will find support for the idea that creative people use the right hemisphere while people who are good at organising things are using their left hemisphere. But we can also find support for the idea that creative and non-creative thinking are not two different things but are more reinforcing each other.

The idea that the brain has different specialised functions that can be used to improve memory, learning and thinking are also the part of the foundation behind mind mapping.


A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future, a book by Daniel H. Pink, posits that the future of global business belongs to the right-brainers. He outlines six essential senses:

  • Design – Moving beyond function to engage the sense.
  • Story – Narrative added to products and services – not just argument.
  • Symphony – Adding invention and big picture thinking (not just detail focus).
  • Empathy – Going beyond logic and engaging emotion and intuition.
  • Play – Bringing humour and light-heartedness to business and products.
  • Meaning – the purpose is the journey, give meaning to life from inside yourself.

Daniel Pink is one of an increasing number of writers on the importance of the Conceptual Economy, as a follow-up of the Information and Knowledge Age. Conceptual economy is a term describing the contribution of creativity, innovation, and design skills to economic competitiveness, especially in the global context. Other contributors to our understanding of the conceptual economy include Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, Tom Kelley’s The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation, explaining the role of assets such as empathy, storytelling, individual experiences and stimulating work environments in fostering creative ideas.

The discussion about the necessity to escape from dominant linear-sequential thinking was earlier argued by Howard Gardner. He developed The Theory of Multiple Intelligences in his 1983 book Frames of Mind:


In one of our next blog posts, we will give hints and tricks together with some useful resources to become “picture smart”. An essential skill to use mind mapping to the fullest of its advantages.

More Soul, More Youthful Thinking and More Thinking Among Machines


What is artificial intuition?

How can it be developed?

What if machines not only learn like children but also think like children?

What would happen if machines started to think together?

Bill Gates has suggested that robots should be taxed and that the money should be used to pay the people who have lost their jobs to robots. On the one hand, it makes sense to suggest that if robots will be depriving humans of work, then the company should simply pay tax for using their skills, and the money should be put into supporting the rest of society.  He also believes that certain jobs cannot be replaced by robots such as nurses and teachers.

Yet, perhaps we are just simply missing the point with using AI – Artifcial Intelligence. Perhaps AI offers a spark to kickstart a new way of building a society. A new way to ensure that everyone has a roof over their head and food on the table. New ideas are needed rather a simple application of the old practices.

The same thing could perhaps also be said about the way we think about machines and the way we design robots. If we look at perhaps the most transforming part of human history it is that we are not relying on individual thinking. Instead, the collaborative and collective thinking is one of driving forces behind our remarkable progress.

So perhaps we should focus on what potential there are among machines rather than within machines.

Moreover, the focus is often on building machines that can deal with increasingly higher volumes of data. Yet, to explore ideas such as building artificial intuition, may require that we instead look into ways that machines that use as little data as possible. Thin-slicing is a powerful concept. Designing machines that can improvise, without a script or a plot and react to new environments require new ways to approach the way we think about AI.

What if several machines could be connected to work intuitively on little information? Perhaps a solution could not be found by using this approach but maybe new insights and ways to approach a problem would emerge.

Children are the best learners. Developmental cognitive scientists and computer scientists have been working together to figure out how young children can learn so much so quickly. A problem with AI is that it has been very difficult to predict what aspects that would be most difficult to solve. Problems such as how to play chess and to detect statistical pattern have turned out to be fairly easy task to solve – admittedly. they could still be improved upon. Yet, a limited generalise can only be achieved from statistical learning, this is regardless of whether you are a child, an adult or a computer.

Children are often good at inventing new concepts and often their thinking is non-conventional – out-of-the box thinking. They link ideas and say things that do not make sense. Creating machines that could create new concepts and explore hypotheses that are not obvious could, just like listening to children, result in new insights.

What if you could transform the way we build AI? What would you do?

(Suggestion, read our other posts about intuition…..)