Reader Request Week 2013 #6: Intuition

Janet asks:

How do you feel about the validity or non-validity of intuition?

I think intuition — that “feeling in your gut” — is absolutely valid. I also think, like any tool, you have to know when to use it and when not to and what its limits are.

For example, let’s say I’ve just met you, and you and I are able to talk for five minutes like normal human beings do (i.e., neither of us is “on” for whatever reason). At the end of those five minutes, I will probably have already decided not just whether I like you or not, but also how much I feel about it in any direction: whether you’re the sort of person I will want to make part of my life, for the rest of my life, whether I will go out of my way to avoid having anything to do with you, or somewhere in between. I know this because, to be immodest about it, my intuitions about who people are (and how I personally will respond to them) are very good indeed, and over the course of time I have generally come to trust those first impressions.

(Before this statement makes you panic, I will note that after five minutes of conversation I will not give you your “friend of Scalzi” grading, because a) that’s not fair and b) just because I think I could take to you (or not) doesn’t mean you feel the same about me and c) why rush things? If we’re going to become friends, it will happen as it will and there’s no reason to push it; likewise if we’re not going to be friends  I want that process to be as graceful as possible on both sides so no one gets their feelings hurt.)

Let’s note that “intuition” here doesn’t simply mean I naturally have some raw magical talent for knowing about people. “Intuition” isn’t magic, it’s subconscious processing of things you already know or do. My “intuition” about people comes from my own personal value system, my desires when it comes to others, years of observing people relating to other people and to me, a writer’s attention to detail and a general understanding of the human being as a social animal — and a reasonably good understanding of who I am and what I know about people, my culture and the specific situation I’m in.

And yes, I know, that sounds like a lot. But remember, I’m not running all these processes in the foreground. In the foreground I’m simply giving my attention to you, because it’s polite and because I want to; I’m curious about people. All of this is stuff running in the background, and they only make their presence known when suddenly I’m hit with it all at once — a moment of gestalt in which I know how I think of you. I trust that gestalt impression because I know that “intuition” isn’t magic — it doesn’t just come out of the air, but through my brain crunching data in a backroom and then sending a messenger out when it’s done.

Are my intuitions about whether I will like people ever wrong? I’ve not known them to be, although in some sense it’s not the right question. If I trust my intuitions about people then that will have a great effect about my feelings toward them — and then of course the intuition becomes correct, doesn’t it. In this specific example one has to acknowledge that intuitions are useful only in the moment, and that time can change people (including you), and that generally speaking it’s worth checking in every once in a while to see if things are different with someone you’ve had an intuition about.

(Also, I’d note that just because I feel I’d like you doesn’t mean that I would give you the keys to my car or the routing number for my bank accounts or divulge my deepest secrets to you. There are some people I like who I don’t trust, and vice versa.)

If you know that “intuition” is shorthand for “brain crunching data in a back room” then you have a good idea of when you can trust it and when you can’t — basically, it depends on the amount and quality of data your brain has to work with. This is why there can be times when your gut feeling isn’t all you need to make a decision.

For example, anything that involves you signing a contract, where you are not absolutely a master of every technical detail that’s in the contract, especially when there’s a personable person in front of you, holding that contract and a pen. That person is there (not necessarily maliciously, but not necessarily not maliciously, either) to make you feel confident that your intuition is sufficient and that you know what you need to know to sign on the line which is dotted. And the fact is, you probably don’t. It’s not that your intuition is lying to you, it’s that your brain doesn’t have the right data to work on.

Knowing the limits of intuition is what keeps intuition useful. Listen to it but always recognize it’s not everything — and that it can be confounded if someone’s making an effort at it. You know who are really good at intuition? Con artists. Their intuitions about whose intuitions about them are easily messed with are pretty good. This is why intuition isn’t the end of the process of getting to know someone or a situation; it’s a first report. You should, you know, spend more time to calibrate.

43 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2013 #6: Intuition

  1. Its odd but when I was a kid I felt like I could filter people very well. I think there were 2 reasons for that. First, people don’t generally make much of an effort to impress kids. That makes them more transparent. Second, people ignore kids so I could hang around the edges and watch people without being involved in the conversation. AS an adult I have a lot more trouble.

  2. I’ll keep this brief, but you hit a central part of my scholarly research.

    First, as to “gut thinking” — my paper in the journal Cosmology, whose PDF of paper you can Google for: “Is Your Gut Conscious? Is an Extraterrestrial?”
    Table of Contents
    Page contents
    2 0.0 Abstract
    2 1.0 Is this a Joke?
    5 2.0 Your Second Brain and a Dog’s First Brain?
    6 3.0 State versus Content
    10 4.0 Is Your Immune System Conscious?
    11 5.0 Your Second Brain and a Dog’s First Brain, Redux
    13 6.0 Stuart Kauffman’s Physics, Hammeroff and Penrose, and Five
    Problems in the Philosophy of Mind
    15 7.0 Final Points: Split-Brain Analogy and “Out of Body”
    17 8.0 References

    Second, with some help from a great computer programmer, I measured the fractal dimension of truth, in the sense of Decimal Gödelization of propositional logic Ordinary Gödel numbers get too big too fast. Decimal Gödelization transforms formulas from logic into strings of decimal digits. Blocks of 1’s and 2s are variables: A = 1, B = 2, C = 11, D = 12, E = 21, … Not (also written -) = 3; And = 4; Xor = 5; Or = 6; Implies = 7; Equiv = 8; Left Parenthesis = 9; Right Parenthesis = 0. Operator binding strength is in numerical order, Not > And > … > Equiv. For example, the first of Heyting’s 11 axioms for intuitionistic propositional logic codes as 1791410, which, digit by digit, unpacks as “A->(A^A)”, meaning that any statement implies that statement and itself. The hard thing, within Richard Schroeppel’s metatheory, is to list in numerical order the theorems that can be proved from a given set of axioms. We generated the first trillion theorems (the formulas which are always true, regardless of assigning truth values any possible way to the variables); the first trillion anti-theorems (the formulas which are always false, regardless of assigning truth values any possible way to the variables); and the first trillion contingent well-formed-formulas (the formulas which could be true or false, depending on assignments of truth values to the variables). That allowed determination to several decimal places of the fractal dimension of truth.

    Decimal Goedelization of Heyting’s 11 axioms for intuitionistic propositional logic.

    https://oeis.org/A140861

    Heyting, A., 1930, Die formalen Regeln der intuitionistischen Logik I, Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 42-56. English translation in Mancosu, 1998, pp.311-327.

  3. Great distinction between like and trust. I’ve come to trust some people I don’t necessarily like to spend a great deal of time with. But there are people I really like who — for whatever reason — simply don’t follow through on things.

  4. That’s a great explanation of intuition.

    I think that a lot of intuition has to do with the brain’s ability to build models or simulations and recognize patterns. I’ve been listening to the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and on one of the many occasions when Watson asks Holmes how he reached a conclusion, Holmes replies that it takes longer to explain than to actually figure it out. He has spent years studying human behavior, particularly criminal behavior, and is therefore able to feed his brain information via observation and it recognizes patterns without conscious effort, then he can apply conscious thought to fill in the blanks.

    This sort of mental modeling isn’t limited to evaluating people, of course. If I ask you if it would be easier to break a window with a pillow or a hammer, you don’t have to think about it. Your brain has models of windows, pillows, and hammers that it has built through experience, and your brain can simulate their interaction without conscious thought. With effort, you can build specialized models in your brain that apply to anything: sports, music, solving crimes, etc. Your success at building and using these models in any particular discipline is bounded by previous experience and physical ability.

    We have a 20-month-old son, and watching him learn and build these models in his mind is amazing.

  5. I remain skeptical of anyone claiming a high level of accuracy about something as squishy as intuition or their gut feeling. In most cases, I suspect their perception of accuracy is selectively filtered to reinforce what they want to be true. Moreover, I also find that many people attach this imagined native ability to some external force or presence such as god or an amorphous spirituality. These all fall into the big claims require big evidence bucket for me.

    That said, I think, as you indicated, that on some level, unarticulated cognition has value. Stripping it from the trappings of mysticism, the observant person can use it as one of several datastreams when sizing up people and situations. But, nothing more.

  6. Typo:
    “If I trust me intuitions”

    John, do you prefer that sort of thing here, where it clutters up the place, or in email, where 20 people might send you the same thing?

    If you have a typo policy link for later referral, I’ve either forgot it, or haven’t seen it.

  7. Elaborating on your comment about the limits of intuition, I am much less skeptical of someone who says that they are good at figuring out their personal feelings toward someone after talking to them for five minutes, than people who claim to have “gut feelings” about a person they have never met (i.e. the guilt or innocence of a person accused of a high profile crime) or groups of people (i.e. the trustworthiness of immigrants from [insert country here]). Maybe the latter’s gut really is telling them something, but I suspect said gut is largely driven by cognitive biases and B.S. The first person’s gut might also be driven by some B.S. factors (like the time in college where a girl was nasty to me for a year before realizing that she actually didn’t have a beef with me, I just looked a lot like someone else she didn’t like) but at least the result is ultimately about the person making the judgment, and not about the person being judged. Because whether it’s based on B.S. or biases or whatever, your feelings are your own business.

  8. I remain skeptical of anyone claiming a high level of accuracy about something as squishy as intuition or their gut feeling. In most cases, I suspect their perception of accuracy is selectively filtered to reinforce what they want to be true.

    There are lots of places where intuition doesn’t work well. For example, humans are lousy at assessing probabilities and risks.

    I think we have reason to believe that our social intuitions are much better. People are social primates; making the sort of assessments that John talks about in the original post are the sort of thing that people do. Of course John is right to point out that con men are equipped to exploit holes in this natural machinery in the same way that magicians exploit holes in our perceptual machinery.

    I recall reading that researchers have found that good chess players generally don’t look much further ahead than poorer chess players, and that the best indicator of chess player ability is the number of unique board positions they have ever seen. Isn’t accessing this database of experience, heuristics and rules of thumb essentially accomplished via intuition.

    I have intuitive reactions to suggestions at work all of the time. Of course they aren’t mystical; they reflect my experience of previous similar situations. Intuition can be a powerful tool in identifying problems and solutions, though having done this, it’s usually important to use actual experiment to validate intuitions.

  9. *SIGH* Explains why only other introverts seem to ‘like’ me. I am quiet and reserved. I don’t make that impression that would put me in the possible friend catagory. Interesting to hear about the process; helps me unerstand.

    In another area, I can ‘read’ a horse because I have spent most of my life interacting with them (probably to the exclusion of people). I have intuitive understandings of what a horse is thinking. Sometimes it is so clear to me that I don’t understand that others do not see a problem coming. I have years of attention to detail that tells me what a horse is thinking of doing. I can encourage or discourage as desired. Unfortunately I can’t seem to apply this understanding to people; they hide their thoughts better and they don’t have rotating, mobile ears.

  10. It’s funny that you said not to panic, because that’s exactly what I was doing when I read that you can tell in 5 minutes whether you want to be someone’s friend or not. My experience is just the opposite; I have not found my first impressions of people to be all that necessarily reliable. Also, I am not very good at making a good first impression.

  11. “…sign on the line which is dotted.”

    Ugh, I hate that speech so much. Not because of the scene. Baldwin’s delivery is brilliant and deserves all the accolades that it has garnered. Rather, it makes me never want to purchase anything from any salesperson ever. Or purchase anything at all. Or interact with salespeople in any way. Or anyone else. Ever again. I’d like to consider the speech as a condemnation of the culture of sales and compassionless capitalism, but I can’t because a) it’s David Mamet, and b) I know personally people who find that speech inspirational.

    Of course, if you aren’t referencing Glengarry Glen Ross, my bad. Carry on.

  12. I suspect that at one point, I had good intuition, but for various reasons, learned not to trust it. I think some of it comes from having grown up in a certain place and time. And then it continued to break as I got screwed more and more. You would think that when your intuition was proved right the first time, you would learn from the experience. And learn to trust it. But it never worked that way for me.

    I wonder if some of not trusting intuition comes from messages we are sent as women, in my case. Any other women feel like that? If some of it is cultural on some level?

  13. Catherine N.: Actually, I trust my intuition more the older I get. I just explain/defend it less and less.

  14. Intuition: 60% of the time, it works every time.

    the other 40%, it’s worse than a racoon that died in the copy machine.

    The main problem is, intuition ALWAYS smells to the wearer like the most awesome cologne ever.

  15. Greg: Yeah, but there are certainly times when it is safe to apply nothing but intuition to a problem – like, what would be the most fun place to take your new friends to dinner? Other times, intuition might simply point you in the direction in which to start inquiring after a question. It might lead you to an answer, but then you have to back that answer up with logic and research, and be ready for the possibility that you’re chasing down a dead end. If one treats it as *a* tool rather than the only tool, it will be helpful.

  16. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. An exelent book on how our brains work with information on the strengths and weaknesses of intuition. It’s actually a little scary.

  17. Sihaya: intuition might simply point you in the direction in which to start inquiring after a question. It might lead you to an answer, but then you have to back that answer up with logic and research, and be ready for the possibility that you’re chasing down a dead end.

    If intuition tells you to get more information, then you’ve got a rather nice version of intuition installed.

    For a lot of people, intuition is little more than a label for “unexamined thinking”. George Bush shows exactly the sort of damage that kind of intuition can do. And at no point then, or now, will George Bush or any of his supporters say something like “I was wrong”. Intuition is exactly the thought process that some people use to arrive at a conclusion with absolutely no data whatsoever. Intuition is exactly the thought process that some people use to arrive at a conclusion in complete opposition to all the known facts. Intuition, by itself, is always certain of its correctness. Always. Intuition never says intuition is wrong.

    Intuition cannot see itself. Intuition cannot self correct.

  18. I’ve always considered intuition to be the result of one’s brain flipping through the hundreds of similar or applicable situations and giving a sort of staff summary to the front brain. Children, then, are more ‘gullible’ because they have a limited number of these experiences to index.

    The remarkable ‘card sense’ of experienced professional poker players, for example, is more attributable to their playing millions of hands and someone pulling the same move twenty years ago that you are trying today, than it is to some metaphysical natural aptitude.

    Or, in my own profession, senior NCOs and experienced officers frequently react instinctively and correctly to combat situations because of prior experience. It’s not so much your guardian angel telling you to lead with a frag behind a door first (a possibly I don’t necessarily discount…just never seen), but rather your brain’s unconcious processing of a similar experience in training or combat where, yup, there was an enemy behind the door.

    These same things certainly apply to interpersonal relationships as well. First impressions and all that.

  19. This is how I describe math too. We all do math intuitively because our brains are basically supercomputers, but we don’t speak the language of math. For instance, if you imagine the convolutions your brain goes through to do something as simple as toss a balled up piece of paper in the bin, taking into account air resistance, when to release the ball, the motion of your wrist and elbow, and so much more, then you start to realize what’s involved. If we wanted to program a robot to do this or describe what is actually happening, we would have to do it in the language of math, but since our brains do it all for us, we can continue to be lazy :)

    Relying on intuition is good and all, but practicing metacognition is important and helps everyone develop as problem solvers.

  20. Catherine N: I think sometimes our politeness training overrides our intuition training, and that’s why we will ignore it.

  21. I have never met anyone who did not think they had “good intuition” about people, some people may actually be right, most are not. I’ve been the victim of people’s intuition all my life, being a little more than a little autistic I tend not to meet a persons eyes I usually look around at my surroundings instead of at people. When through training I learned to look directly at people, I just can’t seem to get the duration right and come off creepy or intimidating. So yeah, I am not a fan of peoples “intuition”.

    On a related vein sociopaths are usually regarded as “very charming” and “wonderful people” usually outgoing friendly and refreshingly direct.

  22. notsont: through training I learned to look directly at people, I just can’t seem to get the duration right and come off creepy or intimidating. So yeah, I am not a fan of peoples “intuition”.

    There’s definitely a lot of “intuition” that could be labeled “reading body language cues with no training”. It probably works fine with people well inside the bell curve. When someone is lying and not good at lying, there may be some cues to pick up that they’re lying. And most people can’t actually list the specific cues they’re using because they’re doing it from an untrained, instinctual level.

    But that “intuition” will fail miserably against a well experienced conman who knows how to lie.

    it really goes back to 60% of the time, it works every time.

  23. The Glorious She has commented!

    Recognizing areas where your intuition doesn’t work is critical to using it. Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit “The Girl With No Gaydar”? Had a friend like that. After repeated crushings upon men who were (to everyone else) quite obviously gay*, she finally realized that and began to ask her friends what they thought the orientation of men she fancied was. I don’t know if she ever learned to see it herself, but she did learn that she had a blindness in that area. It saved everyone a great deal of time and embarrassment.

    *I don’t mean metrosexual or “kind of wimpy” or “huh, maybe”. I mean “ye gods, I’ve seen straighter things in the San Francisco Pride Parade.”

  24. Greg wrote: Intuition is exactly the thought process that some people use to arrive at a conclusion in complete opposition to all the known facts.

    Some people may use it that way, especially in areas where they have little to know prior experience or training, but research indicates that most of the time intuition is the application of experience, possibly through extremely rapid mental simulations based on previously encountered situations.

    As Krusatta suggested, this can be highly effective – and even crucial – in rapidly developing situations, such as combat or other emergency situations. I used to work with Gary Klein, who has studied the use of intuition among fire fighters as well as warfighters, fighter pilots, paramedics and, yes, chess players. People who are interested in this subject might enjoy his books, including The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work and Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.

    As people have suggested above, one of the best ways to apply intuition is to use it to direct your attention and increase your awareness of important details about the situation. As has been observed in field studies, experts do this very well, e.g. they see something that makes them think a certain scenario is happening, and that causes them to check for signs that might confirm or refute their hypothesis. Non-experts in stressful situations tend to suffer from a tunnel vision in which they focus on a hypothesis and are more likely to notice evidence that supports that hypothesis while discounting evidence against it. Experts, however, are more likely to recognize when something about the situation doesn’t fit with their current operational assumption (the way they are framing the problem), and consider alternatives.

  25. Anne: As Krusatta suggested, this can be highly effective – and even crucial – in rapidly developing situations, such as combat or other emergency situations.

    A lot of that is “reverting to training”. It definitely has its uses. You don’t have time to pull out the operator’s manual and read up on emergency procedures when your parachute fails. When this happens, do this. When on fire, stop drop and roll. When you see a possible choking victim, ask if they are choking, if they cannot speak, heimlich. Before antilock brakes, if you slid while braking, pump the brake. Lose power in a helicopter? Drop collective, pull cyclic, and enter an autorotation.

    All that does is take the best known response to a situation and commit it to rote, so that the person isn’t overwhelmed by choices, or overwhelmed by seeing no options because they’re too much in a panic. Deciding WHAT to do takes some brainpower. If the immediate question of what to do is answered by training, training, training, then you’ve got more brainpower to try and take in the bigger picture.

    Non-experts in stressful situations tend to suffer from a tunnel vision in which they focus on a hypothesis and are more likely to notice evidence that supports that hypothesis while discounting evidence against it.

    i.e. panic. Put a random person off the street behind the controls of US Airways flight 1549 and they wouldn’t even know how to fly. Put a random pilot behind the controls and a lot of them would still crash. Put someone with 20,000 hours of flight time and you have a decent chance of coming out of that alive.

    Chesley Sullenberger wasn’t landing that plane out of “intuition”. He was flying out of thousands and thousands of hours of flight time that taught him when this-do that. When this-do that. When this-do that. What he WAS doing was landing the plane far faster than anyone could possibly explain all the inputs behind the “WHY” of his decisions to do this or that.

    But if you had cockpit video and played it back with Sulley and a pause button, he could probably explain to you just about every twitch he made to the controls.

    From Webster: Intuition: the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.

    The main flag for intuition is that acquisition of knowledge has no evident rational thought or inference. You can’t even explain it after the fact. You’re on fire, all the training tells you stop drop and roll, but for no reason that you can explain, you decide to run. That’s intuition.

    Now, it’s true that the reasons for Sulley’s actions would not be evident to most people on the planet. That’s because most people on the planet have zero hours behind the controls of an airplane. Most people would not understand how to get 200,000 pounds to glide. But it would be evident to anyone with the training and experience.

    It’s this loosey-goosey you-wouldnt-understand idea of intuition that bad cops often hide behind to justify horrendously bad decisions. If you can’t explain it even after the fact other than to say “I was acting on my intuition”, then you personally are responsible for your actions. If you are put into a critical situation adn you follow your training, and something bad happens, then you get to blame the training. When you go off script, you shouldn’t get to use “intuition” to justify shooting someone who is unarmed, face down, and cuffed. That’s not intuition. You panicked.

    Training is training. The point of training is to embed the correct responses into rote/muscle memory to critical situations. This allows you to immediately respond to that situation with the best case response, which keeps you ahead of the situation, giving you more time to think, and also keeps you from panicing, because this is “normal”, you’ve trained this over and over. You know what to do.

    Training is not intuition and intuation is not training. Most of a firefighters job is training, training, training, not intuition. And all you have to do to see this is get a group of random people off the street, give them a firetruck and a burning building, and see how horrendously bad they do. The moment you remove the training, all you have left is intuition, and intuition will get people killed.

  26. Greg, intuition is not the same as muscle memory, and the problem solving I was referring to is more complex than a moment of panic or a trained response in a split-second moment. People do not have to be in a panic to experience cognitive tunneling and confirmation bias. It happens quite frequently even in non-threatening situations, and for an extended period of time. Some psychologists used to think it happened to everyone, regardless of training. But then someone pointed out they were doing all their experiments on that with minimally trained undergrad students. When you look at how a true expert with years of experience deals with a situation, you see different patterns, because they have more varied and complex mental models. — they might still have inaccurate ones, but it’s less likely.

    Klein’s studies of how experts solve problems actually changed how the military does certain types of training, and also how some firefighters do it – they now train people to purposefully run mental simulations and question whether the factors of the situation they are facing match what would happen in their imagined scenario. This is a long way away from the previous military standard of “You have a decision to make and you need to fill out a table with the costs and the pros and cons of different responses on a piece of paper,” which nobody had time for anyway, and wasn’t helpful, because that’s not how people think. We run the situation forward in our heads and if a possible course of action appears to lead to disaster, we roll back time mentally and try another option –in mental simulation– until we find one that satisfices, and then we GO with it.

    These situations aren’t ones where people look back and say “My intuition told me this, so I decided to follow that impulse.” What he observed in interviews was people were much more likely to say, “This is what was going on, so we did this response because that’s how you respond in that case,” without reporting having made any decisions at all.

    Where the intuition comes in is in the recognition of the situation, and also in maintaining situational awareness while dealing with an ongoing situation. People with appropriate experience (and training) “recognize” situations accurately according to cues and patterns of which they are not necessarily consciously aware, even though they are in fact changing where they look and what they do to find further such info. Firefighters might look at a burning building and say “Looks like a kitchen fire. You guys go around to the back and confirm. We’re going to need to move the truck over there to reach it with the hose,” where the untrained observer thinks, “The building’s on fire,” and has nothing more to go on. The untrained responder might send people in the front door, while the experienced one “recognizes” that a kitchen fire has spread to the center of the building and it’s too dangerous to go through, they need to go around.

    If you take a bunch of random people off the street and send them to fight a fire, they don’t have any intuition to draw on to fight the fire, aside from possibly “throw water on it.” They are just guessing, just flailing around. They don’t know how buildings are constructed and how to tell where the fire is and whether or not it is endangering the structural integrity of the wall, floor, or roof. They don’t know how hot air is drawn through a structure, or what it’s like to have the oxygen sucked out of your lungs because you don’t have a mask on. Intuition will tell an untrained person to run away from a burning building (or unfortunately, for people already in the building who feel trapped by the fire, intuition is to hide, a reaction that gets all too many children killed – luckily for some kids, a parent’s intuition can guide rescuers as to where to find hiding children. I don’t believe that’s some “loosey-goosey you-wouldnt-understand” psychic sens of where their children are, I think that’s unconscious processing based on previous history and knowing their child.).

    Those other situations you’re talking about, where bad cops blame intuition for why they were beating an unarmed person who was already on the ground? That’s not intuition. That’s lying. And in many cases, it’s strongly influenced by mob psychology – they were in a group that was acting a certain way toward someone they classified as Other. Social psychology and group dynamics were more in the fore than their training.

  27. Since Greg mentioned someone recognizing that someone is choking, let me give another example. Beth Crandall has studied nurses working in NICU (neonatal intensive care units). An experienced nurse can recognize when a premature baby is in crisis when a trained but less experienced nurse might classify the baby as unresponsive, but possibly just too warm or groggy from eating, or whatever. Part of the problem is that a nurse with little experience in the NICU might already have experience with older, less fragile babies. But also the signs of distress — a little bloating and stiffness in the abdomen, say, or a change of color in the face — are non-obvious and subtle. Important signs that change over time can be missed if there’s a shift change at a crucial moment and the incoming nurse doesn’t know what the baby looked like before she started to decline.

    You casually toss these things off as though it’s easy to recognize a situation, but many, many situations aren’t easy to recognize. And the media sadly misleads us sometimes – media representations train us to think the signs of something are different from how it really plays out in the real world. A recently highlighted example of that is drowning. You’ve probably seen dozens of dramas or “re-enactments” that show a drowning person yelling for help, thrashing around, and repeatedly going under, then breaking the surface dramatically only to go under again. But ,a href=”http://mariovittone.com/2010/05/154/”>drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

    In some of the situations where cops make what seem to us like crazy decisions, like shooting a black guy who was just reaching for his wallet, I believe part of the problem is how much media trains people to be afraid, especially of black people. It is unrelenting these days, and it is racist, and it is a real problem.

  28. I couldn’t help but think of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink.” You can argue with the science, but some of the examples he gives are really cool. Like an art dealer who identified a forged ancient statue just because it “didn’t feel right” but had stood up to every empirical test. I forget how they eventually discovered it truly was a fake, but you get the point. If you’re expert enough in any area (including social relations) you start to develop an intuition that’s really formidable.

  29. Anne: We run the situation forward in our heads and if a possible course of action appears to lead to disaster,

    Intuition is subconscious. You’re talking about a conscious analysis. That’s not intuition.

    What he observed in interviews was people were much more likely to say, “This is what was going on, so we did this response because that’s how you respond in that case,”

    From webster: Intuition: direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.

    That interviewee is giving rational explanations for why they did things. They just didn’t stop in the middle of the emergency and announce what they were thinking.

    What you’re describing isn’t intuition.

    People with appropriate experience (and training) “recognize” situations accurately according to cues and patterns of which they are not necessarily consciously aware,

    The fact that you put “recognize” in scare quotes says we’re talking about two different things. Because as far as I can tell, people recognize stuff all the time without conscious awareness. recognition is mostly a subconscious thing that ripples up to the conscious level, with some of the pattern recognition taking input from the conscious level to get the context of the situation.

    You’re walking down the street, you suddenly realize that you know the person on the sidewalk walking towards you, but you can’t think of where you know them, you can’t think of their name, you can’t think of any conscious active information about them. All you know is that you KNOW them. Somehow.

    Then they stop and smile and say “Hi Anne!” and at some point, you realize that you’re talking with Eve from church.

    Pattern recognition in your brain recognized something about her face or body or something visual to tell you that “You know this person”. But you didn’t have the normal context to place her. You weren’t in church on a sunday morning in your sunday best talking to her in the pew. It’s Wednesday afternoon and you’re on lunch break from work and there she is.

    The context of being in church usually informs the facial recognition that you’re looking at Eve. WIthout that context, you know you know the person, but you can’t place her, her name, or anything else.

    But here’s where we seem to radically differ: The part of the mind that visually recognized Eve’s face isn’t intuition. We all recognize faces according to cues and patterns with zero need to become consciously aware of them. We learn what someone looks like at a level below consciousness. But that doesn’t make it “intuition”.

    When you see Eve in church, recognize her face, and then the context informs you that its Eve, that isn’t intuition.

    When you see her on a Wednesday and your brain is telling you “You know her”, but the context isn’t there so you can’t put a name to it, that isn’t intution.

    If “intuition” is anything that isn’t at the overtly conscious, active decision making level, then 99% of our daily lives is intuition. If intuition is any decision where we are NOT tabulating spreadsheets in our minds of cost/benefits, then 99% of our actions are from intuition. And if 99% of our actions come from intuition, then the word “intuition” is pointless because it doesn’t actually differentiate anything. At that point, it’s ALL intuition.

    They don’t know how buildings are constructed and how to tell where the fire is and whether or not it is endangering the structural integrity of the wall, floor, or roof. They don’t know how hot air is drawn through a structure, or what it’s like to have the oxygen sucked out of your lungs because you don’t have a mask on.

    Sure, but NONE of that is intuition. That’s all specialized training that gets boiled down into the pattern recognition parts of our brain. You recognize Eve’s face. A firefighter recognizes a grease fire. That is NOT intuition.

    From webster: Intuition: direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.

    Firefighters are trained to recognize different types of fires. That isn’t intuition. It’s presenting the pattern over and over so that you recognize the pattern when it happens in real life. You recognizing Eve isnt intuition. It’s a function of you seeing Eve over and over to the point where your brain recognizes the look of her face.

    The only difference is unless you’re a firefighter, you’re probably not goign to recognize the different types of fire. Unless you are TRAINED, all fire looks the same. Sort of like the stereotype that all (racial category of people) look the same to someone not in that category.

    Untrained person sees fire and thinks FIRE!. Trained person sees fire and the way the flames flick and sees grease fire.

    a parent’s intuition can guide rescuers as to where to find hiding children. I don’t believe that’s some “loosey-goosey you-wouldnt-understand” psychic sens of where their children are, I think that’s unconscious processing based on previous history and knowing their child.).

    What you’re calling intuition includes 99% of day to day decision making. A parent who wakes up with their house on fire will run to their kids bedroom. If the kid isn’t there, the parent will run to all the places the parent has known the kid to hide or hang out or whatever. That’s just regular old fashioned thinking. There isn’t any intuition whatsoever of looking under the desk in your spare bedroom converted into an office if your kid has a habit of hiding there.

    Once you’ve gone through the list of places you’ve known your kid to hide, once you’ve gone through the list of places you can imagine YOU might hide, once you’ve gone through the list of places you can imagine otehr people you’ve dealt with might hide, then you might get into intuition.

    If you kid’s favorite hiding place is under your desk in your office, then looking there when your house is on fire isn’t “intuition”.

    If you call that intuition, then I really have no idea what you’re talking about when you say “intuition”.

  30. Greg, you don’t know who Anne is but I do. In this particular instance you arguing with her on this specific matter is like someone who read a first aid book arguing with a surgeon about a medical procedure. I’m not going to stop you, but I am going to suggest to you that you may be over your head in this discussion and not even know it. Which means it would be a fine time to check your “I am arguing to argue” impulse, which is far stronger than you seem to be aware of.

  31. Anne: You casually toss these things off as though it’s easy to recognize a situation, but many, many situations aren’t easy to recognize.

    Wait, what???

    I said Sulley was able to save flight 1549 because he had 20,000 hours of training. I said that as someone who has flown planes and helicopters, and who has some sense of just how hard of a skill it is to learn.

    You’ve probably seen dozens of dramas or “re-enactments” that show a drowning person yelling for help, thrashing around, and repeatedly going under, then breaking the surface dramatically only to go under again. But ,a href=”http://mariovittone.com/2010/05/154/”>drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

    My first post on this thread said For a lot of people, intuition is little more than a label for “unexamined thinking”.

    If people see a movie of a person splashing around as how a drowning person looks, then that might very well become an unexamined pattern they look for. If you take a first aid course or similar, and they show you how drowning people actually behave in real life, then that’s examining your thinking and replacing it with more formal training informed by more experienced people.

    Training, training, training, is usually chucking out a lot of nonsense that people assuem about a subject and replacing it with the best practices of the people who’ve had experience in the area. When you lose power in a helicopter, drop collective, pull cyclic, and you’ve got a split second to enter an autorotation. And you practice that over and over and over, to the point that you recognize the pattern of an engine out the way you recognize Eve’s face.

    It is subconscious. But its not intuition. It’s training.

    If you saw Eve on the sidewalk and never got a chance to remember her name, maybe she didn’t stop to talk or whatever. On Sunday, you go to church and see her,and realize that’s who you saw. That’s not intuition. The facial recognition happened at a subconscious level and your conscious level couldn’t place it because you were in a different context than usual.

    When you train for something like flying a helicopter, the instructor will pull power on you in all sorts of different places. The goal is so that you recognize the pattern of an engine out in any context of flying. The pattern recognition of an engine out isn’t intuition. It’s a part of your training, it just gets into your brain at an unconscious level.

    I’m not casually tossing something off as easy to recognize, I’m saying it’s really, really HARD to train yourself to do these things, but its a function of training, a function of learning the low level patterns that you need to recognize, and learning the higher level contexts in which you will need to operate with your newly acquired skill.

    I’m saying Sully didn’t land that plane on the river out of intuition. He did it out of 20,000 hours of experience behind the controls of aircraft, of learning all the little nuances of patterns that someone with less experience might miss, of learning all the little nuances of getting the best possible glide angle, of learning how to manage a huge number of variables like speed, altitude, pitch, yaw, roll, flap settings, that all have an effect on where you’re going to land.

    That isn’t intuition. It’s training, training, training.

  32. It seems like in any community (be it online or off) where writing/reading and English is an interest of at least a good portion of the members of that community, arguments on semantics sprout up at an absurd rate.

    People have different connotations for the same word, and yes, even different denotations. You can discuss which one is “right” or even which is “appropriate”, and those discussions may be enjoyable, but if you get worked up over it to the point of argument even after realizing it is an argument on semantics, chances are you’re approaching Dalek levels of intolerance for anything different from your worldview.

  33. Zero: if you get worked up over it to the point of argument even after realizing it is an argument on semantics, chances are you’re approaching Dalek levels of intolerance

    The original post question was: How do you feel about the validity or non-validity of intuition?

    In the original post, John answered the question by first defining intution as that “feeling in your gut”

    The entire thread is nothing *but* semantics. Semantics means “The study of meaning”. The question “is intuition valid or invalid?” is nothing but an exercise of semantics. Does intuition mean anything, or is it a bunch of meaningless mumbo jumbo? And John starts his response by attempting to define the term.

    From the get-go, this was a discussion of semantics.

  34. Because I believe discretion to indeed be the better part of valor, I will carefully structure my comment. Klein heavily influenced modern combat training. Not the mechanics of it (things like marksmanship, physical training, etc.) but how modern combatants are taught to think about combat situations. How do I know? Because I am looking at one of our TTMs and Klein is cited eight times in the introduction.

    Muscle memory serves to ensure I can keep my head on a swivel, engage targets, and keep an accurate running account of where my teammates are and where I think the enemy is. This allows a “full spectrum awareness” which is “key to reacting to formless tactical situations.”

    In my opinion (wince), part of the above discussion between Greg and Anne might be related to how Greg thinks as a pilot. Having spent a great deal of time with our skid drivers, Greg is espousing what he was taught. Which may be directly related to the far more technical requirements of flying an aircraft.

    For a ground fighter, much of what we need to do automatically is conveniently handled by our own brain, unconciously. This isn’t quite the case for a pilot who must learn a new set of automatic reflexes.

  35. I took a look at Klein’s book

    The “look inside” bit unfortunately talked *about* his notion of intuition without ever getting into enough detal to explain what he means by the word. The last paragraph is talking about a nurse:

    Darlene walked past Melissa’s isolette near the end of th eshift, something caught her eye. Something about the baby “just looked funny” as she later put it. Nothing major, nothing obvious, but to her the baby “didn’t look good”. Darlene had a closer look, now noticing specific details. She noticed the heel stick had not stopped bleeding. To Darlene, Melissa seemed a little “off color” and “mottled” and her belly seemed a little rounded.

    At which point it ends.

    I still don’t know what Klein means by intuition, but this example seems to be pointing to picking up on subtle physical clues at a glance, which immediately get confirmed or denied by closer examination. When you’re flying, you might start out with a rather mechanical sequence of specific instruments to check every once in a while, and in a particular order. altitude, airspeed, heading, engine. After a while, you sort of get a sense of what the panel looks like when its “right” and you can just glance at it and know if it is *not* right. Then you have to stop and look and figure out what specifically isn’t right.

    It reminds me in a way of something I read about a few years ago about young children being taught to “count” by showing them flashcards of circles on a page. Teacher would flash a card that had, for example, 23 circles on it, and then hide it. The card would be visible too short a time to consciously count each individual circle, but the kids could eventually learn to count by a glance. the circles were randomly place, and they had different versions of the same number of cicles so the kids couldln’t just memorize a “tell” like marked cards in a deck.

    my google foo failed to find it just now.

    When the nurse glanced at the baby, it seems that what she was doing was similar to this counting circle flash card thing, or similar to glancing at a panel full of guages in a cockpit and just sensing when one of them isn’t right. And then you have to do the double-take to figure what exactly isn’t right.

    Visual processing can be pretty fricken weird. humans visually identify pictures of snakes much more quickly than images of flowers. I don’t think I’d call that “intuition” though.

    Klein’s book is priced at around $10 to $15. Think I’ll buy a copy.

  36. Believing ones intuitions is somewhat like believing in Santa Claus.
    If it works, fine – For a select few believing in Santa works quite
    nicely.
    Intuition is not trustable for fact based situations.
    And, as mentioned above, many people are quite capable of faking
    trustworthyness for emotion type situations.


    “[I can judge a man by his handshake and I've never been wrong!]”
    Dude, I was judging you at the same time. You left your gloves on
    when reaching at me. I didn’t. So rude of you.
    And.
    “[You should have stood up for shaking his hand.!]” Reason I didn’t
    stand up was standing up started a twinge in my back, plus a little bit
    of our faces would have been a foot apart – That really old guy (25? 30?
    maybe even ! 40!) was already leaning over sitting-in-chair-me before I
    even knew he was in the room.

    Ahh, good manners.
    Best to ignore ‘em if somebody is creeping you out because that’s your
    intuition talking to you.

  37. It took me a long time to learn there were different styles of ‘connecting’ with people, I like you have a good instinct and feel that I know how well I connect with someone shortly after interacting with them and that point dosen’t change much. I have another friend that starts everyone at 0 (total stranger) and only increases with time spent and shared events. This would agrivate me when I said I didn’t care for someone much and I would be told ‘Well spend more time with them you will grow to like them” which turns out was true for the person that said it but not for me. I want on about this in my LJ many years ago.
    Full post http://starstraf.livejournal.com/23188.html

  38. Greg was right, in spades: “Visual processing can be pretty fricken weird.”

    My M.S. in Artificial Intelligence & Cybernetics (1975) was while working in a Scene Analysis project at U.Mass.-Amherst, trying to automatically analyze digitized snapshots of outdoor scenes to identify ground, horizon, sky, trees, cars, people, and the like. It was predicted to be “easy” when A.I. was invented (1956, Dartmouth summer workshop) but turned out absurdly hard, whether one tries to do it the way people do or not.

  39. liking or not liking someone is a personal opinion.
    Anyone who argues with you about your opinion is either right
    or very very very wrong and probably a Point Of Sale.
    Thing that happened to me when I was about 17 and just off at
    college.
    The pigeon drop con.
    I’d heard about it in a Lawrence Block book and so put my arm on
    the shits shoulder and said something like ‘Oh, wow, let’s walk to
    that cop and tell him _all_ about it.’
    Such fast running to be in about the middle of the crowd.
    And the cop noticed and I did tell him everything I knew, including
    that character in book knew that an honest cop was one who stayed
    bought and that I figured that the cop in the book was very patient
    with an informant who was very useful at solving murders.

    Hard sell. If someone is putting a tremendous effort into getting you
    to do something? Don’t do it. Not good for you.
    If screaming will help you may not need something sharp or heavy.
    Vis the pigeon drop. The competent ones have friends who will kill
    you to protect the seed money.

  40. Every year the cost of intuition is raised by various state Universities and I think that’s outrageous. It’s getting harder and harder for Americans to get a college degree and the debt load of those who do go to college is getting higher and higher. It’s ridiculous and something needs to be done about it!

    Wait…I’m thinking of TUITION not INtuition.

    Never mind.

  41. Started reading Klein’s book. Prior to ordering the book, I didn’t really make much of the fact that he is a psychologist, as compared to, say, a neurobiologist. But reading his book, his background makes a big difference. When I started reading this thread, I had in the back of my mind a number of fascinating conversations I had with a neurobiologist friend of mine, which had a much lower-level view of the mind.

    In the preface, Klein says: “I define intuition as the way we translate our experience into action”. Well, that’s a pretty soft and quite pliable definition.

    Also, something that was quite a bit of unintended humor: example 3.1, Klein talks about how some banker successfully uses intuition to succeed in banking, pursuing what he saw as a “more aggressive strategy”. How? By getting out of the “conventional mortgage lending that banks do” and get into the “mortgage banking business”. This is what his intuition told him to do. The example ends reporting that by 1998, the bank and the banker made a lot of money thanks to his intuition.

    The book is published in 2003, so it can’t follow up with the hindsight we have now: i.e. ten years later, the mortgage crisis not only threw many of these institutions into disarray, needing saving by the federal government, the mortgage crisis spiraled out into a larger recession that we’re still clawing our way out of today.

    So, a mortgage banker is not exactly the poster child for “intuition, rah rah rah!”

    Also, maybe he gets into it in more detail later, but so far, Klein appears to hate analysis. He says people don’t think that way.He says people don’t look at various options, weigh the cost/benefits of each, and select the best one. He cited several studies that all say that 90% or more of people’s decisions are entirely based on intuition.

    In chapter 3, he gives one paragraph that describes analysis in a positive light. And so far, its the only paragraph that discusses analysis in a positive light. Even in that paragraph, while Klein says “I don’t believe intuition can solve all our problems. Analysis has a proper role” he immediately follows with “It [analysis] can sometimes help make a decision. But it cannot replace the intuition that is at the center of the decision-making process”

    Faint praise for “analysis”.

    It seems that part of this comes from Klein fighting against some folks back in the day who asserted something to the effect of “don’t trust your intuition at all, its all analysis”. And apparently, he started studying intuition when intuition wasn’t cool and analysis was king. And in the decades since, intuition has gotten more respect. But it seems to have given Klein an almost allergic reaction to analysis.

    Thus far, Klein defines intution as recognizing patterns from experience, using that pattern to look at one particular solution, simulate that solution, and if it works in simulation, do it.

    OK, fine. But his allergic reaction to analysis and the apparent infallibility of intuition would exactly explain some large scale, systemic problems we’ve seen in the past. If intuition is pattern recognition, and improving our intiution is training ourselves based on variations of past experiences, then this would exactly lead to, for example, militaries being prepared to fight the last war (because that’s the patterns they’ve learned to recognize) rather than being prepared for changes in tactics, technology, and such that completely alter war beyond any previously existing pattern.

    The French military people who had experience with world war 1, used their intuition to construct the Maginot Line in the 1930’s, preparing for trench warfare against Germany. That was the patterns they were familiar with. And without analysis, intuition would say that’s exacty the right thing they should do. Nazi Germany’s Blitzkrieg showed that the intuition of “another trench war” was entirely wrong.

    Thus far Klein’s view of intuition is entirely “tactical”. He talks about marine officers and enlisted learning and advancing their intuition of the battlefield to, for example, determine how long it will take to march from point A to point B. The rule is 2.5 miles per hour, but only experience (and therefore intuition) will teach them all the modifiers to that generic rule. Terrain, weather, tactical situation, etc. He talks about firefighters recognizing the pattern of smoke and intuiting that the fire involves chemical accelerants. He talks about CEO’s making decisions for the company, like the banker deciding to get into mortgage banking and making a lot, lot, lot of money.

    But from a “strategic” point of view, intuition fails miserably. Because intuition, as defined by Klein, is “pattern recognition primed decision making”. You see a pattern that you’ve experienced or trained with before, it comes packed with a particular solution, you imagine applying that solution to this particular problem, and if it simulates ok in your imagination, you go with it.

    Some decisions are simply too big for anyone to have any relevant, realistice, direct experience of it. How many people had direct experience of something as big and bad as the Great Depression by the year 2003? Essentially none. At least no one who was a CEO or politician who could affect economics. And since the 80’s or so, what was happening was all the safeguards put in place as a direct result of the Great Depression, were being torn down by short sighted people who had zero experience of the Depression and who completely lacked any analysis of it to understand that they were for all intents and purposes removing the padlock from Smaug’s keep that their grandparents had fought hard to imprison.

    Klein defines intuition as “the way we translate our experience into action”. And he asserts later on that intuition ” is at the center of the decision-making process”, and that analysis is secondary.

    In tactical settings, this is fine because the real world experience becomes the intuition-based decision making process. At the strategic level, this attitude can become a disaster, because the arc of history bends over generations so people don’t have the day-to-day experience of battles our ancestors fought and won. We dont have the experience, therefore we can’t, from intuition alone, recognize the patterns that Klein says are so important to recognize.

    Maybe he ammends his definition later and maybe he upgrades the importance of analysis and maybe later on he acknowledges that intuition has its limits in some situations where analysis must take precedence, but so far…. phew.

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