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Trusting Intuition vs Analysis

by Steven Novella, Dec 17 2012

We all make decisions every day. I started out my day deciding what to wear, following by a decision of what to write about for this morning’s blog post.  Most decisions are small and likely have insignificant consequences, but even small decisions can have a large cumulative effect. Some decisions are huge and can have dramatic effects on the course of our lives or the lives of others. Studying human decision-making, therefore, seems to be a useful endeavor, one likely to have implications for critical thinking.

The current dominant model of decision making is the so-called dual-process approach. Decision-making is seen as coming in two flavors: intuitive-affective, or system I, decision-making is based upon our “gut-feelings”, while analytical system II processing is based upon careful analysis. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and researchers are busy trying to  sort out which approach is superior in which circumstances.

Intuitive decision-making has the advantage of being quick. We get an overall feeling for a situation, based upon evolved emotions and heuristics and modified by our own experiences, and can act quickly on such feelings. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is highly susceptible to bias and may not properly weigh important details.  The analytic approach has the advantage of being detail-oriented, logical, and quantitative and can be highly evidence-based, given a statistically accurate weight to each factor considered. The analytic approach is specifically designed to weed out bias and faulty thinking. The disadvantage of the analytic approach is that it is time and effort intensive, and it is only as good as the evidence that feeds into it.

There is a bit of a “battle” going on between cognitive researchers as to which strategy is overall superior – the “blink vs think” controversy. The term “blink” comes from the book by the same name by Malcolm Gladwell that essentially lays out the subconscious process of intuitive decision-making. This question is interesting for everyday life, but has great implications for certain professions, such as my own profession as a neurologist. There is even a literature dedicated to the question of medical decision-making.

On the other side there is the book (and then movie), Moneyball. This is the story of the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, Billy Beane, who pioneered an analytical system of choosing players (what he called sabermetrics) and applied it over the intuitive system of experts (managers, coaches, and scouts) evaluating potential players based on more traditional methods. The approach was a huge success and has changed the way professional baseball teams evaluate players – based more on statistics that have been shown to correlate with positive outcomes.

So far a few consistent factors seem to be emerging from the research. One is that the relative value of intuitive vs analytical decision-making depends highly on the situation. Situations that require quick decisions, such as sports, heavily rely upon the intuitive approach. For example, in one study involving team handball players who made intuitive decisions performed faster and better than those taking a more analytical approach. Another study, however, showed that when playing chess, detailed move analysis resulted in more optimal choices, even for those players who are highly experienced and intuitive chess players, and regardless if the problem were easy or difficult.

Some researchers believe that this is related to the fact that intuitive decision-making is better adapted to non-linear decision trees involving imperfect information, while analytical decision-making is better suited to linear or algorithmic decision trees based upon objective evidence.

Level of expertise also seems to play a role in outcome. Greater expertise results in better intuitive decision-making, but not analytical decision-making. This suggests that the role of experience in intuitive decision-making is significant. It also suggests, in my opinion, that analytical decision-making is a great leveler – no matter what your experience, if you apply a detailed analytical approach you can come to a reliable decision.

Interestingly, there is research into the effects of age on decision-making. As we get older our emotional intelligence increases, and this helps our intuitive decision-making. However, older adults also may experience cognitive decline, which can impair their analytical decision-making. So essentially older adults in general get better at intuitive decision-making and worse at analytical decision-making.

If I were to summarize all of this I would say that overall analytical decision-making is superior for important decisions. It is worth taking the time to consider evidence, statistics, and outcomes. Further, the analytical approach is the great equalizer- everyone can benefit from careful analysis. The exception to this is in situations where rapid complex decision-making is necessary for optimal or competitive performance, such as in some sports. Further, it is worth listening to your intuition, at least as a starting point. Your intuitive feelings are likely to give you useful information, but then I would back it up with some analysis, including for sources of bias. Intuition, however, seems to be highly dependent on expertise, but expertise is still no guarantee that intuition will be optimal (such as in Moneyball).

It’s OK to blink, as long as you also think.

8 Responses to “Trusting Intuition vs Analysis”

  1. Max says:

    Intuitive decision making sounds simpler and faster than analytical, but it doesn’t have to be. Some studies in forecasting show that simple algorithms with a few inputs outperform expert opinions based on a lot more data.
    For example, the Dalbar study.
    “After conducting this year’s Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior (QAIB), Dalbar found that in 2011, the average equity fund investor underperformed the S&P 500 by 7.85%. The poor performance shows that psychological factors continue to harm the average investor and the remedies for these behaviors remain a work in progress.”

  2. Wscott says:

    I’ve actually been reading quite a lot about this lately, so it’s great to get the neurology take on it!

    There’s an old George Patton quote that “A good plan, violently executed now, is
    better than a perfect plan next week.” Some people take that as license to skip any kind of analysis and just go with your gut. But if you actually *read* Patton that’s not what he’s saying at all – in fact other quotes stress the value of taking time, even if it’s only 5 minutes, to analyze the data, “take counsel of your fears,” and weigh options before making a major decision. He’s just saying don’t get hung up aiming for perfection.

    Apart from time constraints, another factor when intuitive decision-making may be more helpful is when you’re in a complex system where the relationship between cause & effect is not clear, and may only be understood in hindsight. In that environment, analysis is only as good as the assumptions you have going in, which may or may not be accurate, so innovation and adaptability may be more useful than analysis – tho you still need to be able to evaluate if your responses are working or not.

    I like Snowden & Kurtz’s Cynefin model of decision making:

  3. Max says:

    Should I use intuition or analysis to decide whether to use intuition or analysis?

  4. d brown says:

    INTUITION is what we think is right. We learn it from the people around us. In life its almost always wrong. i.e. You can’t trust Jews, blacks are dumber, poorer people want what we have, what we have is what we earned on our own. SOME ONE IS OUT TO GIT US.

  5. karaktur says:

    Solving a college physics problem or completing a mathematical proof is a good example of an analytical process. Deciding how to approach that problem or proof to achieve an “elegant” solution often begins with intuition.

  6. MadScientist says:

    Sometimes even for big decisions the decision itself doesn’t matter – there is no right or wrong, better or worse decision, just a decision you need to stick to. In other cases, gut feeling belongs in the toilet along with the other things that pass through the gut. I think fighting fires is a great example of how gut feeling will likely get you killed in most situations.

  7. Spiros Kakos says:

    So I guess Riemann’s explicit hypothesis for prime numbers was a result of “analysis” and not instinct? Because it seems right, but people cannot still prove it. But if they cannot prove it, then it must be based on intuition…