Daniel Kahneman and Herbert Simon on Intuition

Why do experts seem to have better intuition than the rest of us when operating within their Circle of Competence?

Are they doing something the rest of us are not? Or is there another explanation that unlocks the keys of intuition.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman writes that “intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”

When we experience something either directly (first hand) or indirectly (we’ve read about it or hear it in a podcast) our brains take note and file it away. Later when we encounter a situation that resembles our chunk, our brains leap into a subconscious recognition of a situation. Our intuition about the situation might be correct and it might be wrong but it’s not operating at the level of conscious thought. You can think of intuition as thinking that you know something without really knowing how or why you know it.

When Can We Trust Our Intuition?

While our intuition is often right, it also leads us astray. Without consciously realizing it we place a high confidence in our intuition. And why wouldn’t we? It’s right far more often than it’s wrong. But confidence is a poor proxy for correctness and often means that when you’re wrong,  you’re really wrong.  Luckily there are situations where our intuition is more likely to be right than others.

Our intuition is more often right if:

  1. The environment is unchanging or slow to change. Complex adaptive systems are poor places to develop intuition.
  2. We have a large sample size. That is., we get a lot of practice.
  3. We receive immediate and accurate feedback.

So all we need is an unchanging environment, lots of practice, and immediate feedback. Simple but not easy. If any of those things are not true, we should rely less on our subconscious gut and more on our rational brain.

The Components of Expertise

This connects with something Herbert Simon, another Nobel laureate, wrote on expertness and intuition:

We have seen that a major component of expertise is the ability to recognize a very large number of specific relevant cues when they are present in any situation, and then to retrieve from memory information about what to do when those particular cues are noticed.

Because of this knowledge and recognition capability, experts can respond to new situations very rapidly—and usually with considerable accuracy. Of course, on further thought, the initial reaction may not be the correct one, but it is correct in a substantial number of cases and is rarely irrelevant.

Chess grandmasters, looking at the chessboard, will generally form a hypothesis about the best move within five seconds, and in four out of five cases, this initial hypothesis will be the move they ultimately prefer. Moreover, it can be shown that this ability accounts for a very large proportion of their chess skill. For, if required to play very rapidly, the grandmaster may not maintain a grandmaster level of play but will almost always maintain a master level, even though in rapid play there is time for almost nothing but to react to the first cues that are noticed on the board.

We usually use the word “intuition” – sometimes also “judgment” or even “creativity” – to refer to this ability of experts to respond to situations in their domains of expertise almost instantaneously and relatively accurately.

In his autobiography, Models of My Life, Simon further elaborates on the difference between expert decision makers and the rest of us.

The decision maker of experience has at his disposal a checklist of things to watch out for before finally accepting a decision. A large part of the difference between the experienced decision maker and the novice in these situations is not any particular intangible like “judgment” or “intuition.” If one could open the lid, so to speak, and see what was in the head of the experienced decision-maker, one would find that he had at his disposal repertoires of possible actions; that he had checklists of things to think about before he acted; and that he had mechanisms in his mind to evoke these, and bring these to his conscious attention when the situations for decisions arose.

One of the ways we can acquire “a checklist of things to watch out for” is to learn how the world really works and adapt ourselves accordingly. The best way to do that is to study the time-tested ideas, our Latticework of Mental Models.