Post No.: 0373
Some intuitive predictions draw primarily upon genuine expertise and skill acquired via repeated experiences (‘skilled intuitions’), but other intuitions employ heuristics such as stereotypes, anchoring or substitution (‘heuristic intuitions’). Both are quick, automatic, can be made with a high subjective confidence and come from ‘system one’. The former is by far more reliable – but both types come to system one indistinguishable from each other; like false memories come indistinguishable from genuine memories (and maybe like dreams can come indistinguishable from reality while one is having one). It takes conscious and critical ‘system two’ to distinguish between them, if it can verify the facts.
Regarding decision-making, judgements and predictions – there are innate abilities and fears we’re born with that we share with other animals (e.g. the ability to orient our attention towards a noise, the fear of falling). But if we have the relevant trained expertise, knowledge or practised skills and can recognise a situation properly then we can use that specific trained skill or knowledge to make generally good decisions (e.g. like a chess master when playing chess, or naming the capital of Brazil if we know what the answer is, or indeed more everyday abilities such as reading or recognising a cat is a cat despite having never seen that exact breed before – meow). So skilled intuitions aren’t magical abilities – they’re just the product of effortful learning and prolonged practice.
Yet if a question is difficult and a skilled solution isn’t available to us then we’ll often still try to use intuition to make a quick answer but one based not on learnt knowledge or a prolonged record of being correct in the specific area in question but one based on innate, crude system one heuristics instead, which are far more error-prone. Post No.: 0085 explored how we trust our heuristic gut instincts if we’ve nothing better (and just as lazily effortless) to trust.
However, if we don’t know the correct answer and there’s also no heuristic available to answer something – like the question 5865/17 – then we’ll (have to) resort to slower and more effortful deliberation instead (the answer is 345). (As a note, a system one heuristic is like stereotyping all cats as being fluffy, but there are also system two heuristics like turning a worded mathematics question into an equation before attempting to solve it. The former relies on subconscious or unconscious intuition and requires no deliberation while the latter relies on conscious effort. So in this post, the term ‘heuristic intuition’ therefore refers to heuristics coming from innate intuitions or system one.)
So expert/skilled intuition can be as quick as heuristic intuition, and they’ll both come from one’s subconscious or unconscious automatically and effortlessly, thus our conscious mind won’t be aware of the exact source of the answer. We can therefore potentially confuse heuristic intuitions with expert/skilled intuitions, but the reliability of these answers will be different – expert/skilled intuitions will be more reliable.
Expert/skilled intuition is simply nothing more or less than recognition – the situation provides the cue, relevant information is stored in one’s memory if one is an expert in the specific area in question, and this stored memory of previously learnt/associated solutions, learnt methodologies or mnemonics that can help one reach the solution, gained from previous practice or experience, provides the answer quickly and relatively effortlessly (such as you should hopefully recognise the answer to 5865/17 quite quickly now).
Valid skilled intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognise familiar elements in new situations and have learned to act in an appropriate manner towards them. Problems occur when people assume that all quick answers from their brains are responses based on learned, specific expertise rather than responses sometimes based on innate, crude system one heuristics – and it’s easy to confuse the two because they both come to our conscious from a subconscious or unconscious source. Unfortunately, intuitions from professionals don’t always arise from true expertise either – even experts in their fields rely on their feelings sometimes without knowing that they’ve actually over-extended their expertise!
A skilled person actually exhibits much less brain activity when tackling a task they’re skilled at doing, hence it feels relatively effortless. An unskilled person thus exhibits a lot of brain activity when tackling a complex task they’re unskilled at doing because the task is new and unfamiliar and they’re unsure about how to efficiently tackle it, hence it can feel very tiring and draining.
Now if we genuinely are skilled at something but try to slow down, we can actually end up ‘over-thinking’ and consequently perform worse than if we just relied on our skilled intuition (e.g. if one becomes self-conscious about performing in public a task one does well in private – this also loads the working memory with anxious, fuzzy thoughts hence further impairs one’s performance). However, on the other side – assuming we have skilled intuition or expertise in a situation we don’t have it can be dangerous if we approach it without effortful thinking.
System two is lazy though. It’ll put in as little effort as possible and seek the least effortful solution. But if one invests the effort into practising a task then that task will eventually become effortless and one will develop a, quick yet more reliable than innate, skilled intuition concerning that specific task. We’ve all experienced how more practice will eventually make a task feel less mentally taxing to perform. It’s therefore a cost-benefit consideration when deciding whether to practise a skill to mastery or not.
So for anything that requires skill, it’s the practised skilled instinct that’s the instinct one can rely on for better performance, and would be better relying on than consciously over-thinking. For example, a person who hasn’t played golf before is better off consciously thinking about her/his stance and swing, but someone who has played a lot of golf and now gets successful results consistently is better off trusting her/his trained intuitions rather than consciously over-thinking. Or like during the first several driving lessons, our thinking is slow, deliberate and requires an intensive conscious focus on relatively simple tasks, but as one practises more, the skill becomes automated in the brain so that we don’t need to consciously think so directly ‘clutch pedal in, into gear, check mirrors, indicate, handbrake off, gradually press the accelerator pedal while releasing the clutch pedal, steer…’. It becomes instinctive – but it’s a trained instinct rather than something that was innate. (However, if you later find that you e.g. speed or fail to indicate, then it’d once again help to bring these habits into conscious focus again in order to readdress these bad ingrained habits.)
We don’t want people with no experience of driving to ‘just trust and drive according to their raw instincts’ and to ignore their tutor or neglect to directly and effortfully think about their actions(!) Yet many people trust in their own innate instincts over effortful critical thinking in other areas they have no true expertise in (e.g. when leading, parenting or deciding on their economic worldviews when they’ve never effortfully studied these subjects directly). People over-simplistically believe that their raw instincts are the best thing to rely on for everything – even things they’re not skilled at, experienced or knowledgeable about. This leads to potential errors of judgement.
So trust your instincts, but only if you’re truly skilled in what you’re specifically doing, plus if the task is in an area that’s not too much down to luck, chaos or things outside of your own control (e.g. if you’ve got several years of good climbing experience then trust your instincts, but don’t trust your instincts even if you’ve played roulette for years and have so far come out on top, unless that instinct is telling you to finally stop playing). Trusting your instincts in all cases is thus naïve and over-simplified advice.
We must note though that, like artificial intelligences, human intelligences and trained intuitions suffer from ‘crap in, crap out’ too, hence indoctrinated and ingrained biases as a result of learnt experiences can still lead to systematic errors, which might not be directly costly to the individuals who hold them (hence they don’t self-correct) but costly to those who are discriminated against and to communities overall. We can still consciously learn **** like racial biases!
In many contexts, both skilled and heuristic intuitions are used, as well as precise calculations and empirical analyses via system two. With heuristic intuition, your associative memory quickly and automatically attempts to construct the best possible causal story from the information available (whereby weakly relevant/predictive information is usually given too much weight). In order to come up with a guess, it relies upon stereotypes (tries to compare to reference groups and in relation to relevant norms), it uses substitution (predicts the future based on evaluating information about the present, which means we can e.g. neglect regression to the mean) and it uses intensity matching (e.g. assuming that someone who has a high reading fluency must also have high academic grades too). Sometimes there’s no better available way of guessing – but the key is to not be so confident of one’s intuitive predictions in the face of great uncertainty.
‘Regression to the mean’ affects chance factors – therefore, the more uncertainty or chance there is regarding something, the more one must account for this regression when predicting the future from present evidence (e.g. predicting someone’s future academic performance in Secondary/High school from their current academic performance in Primary/Elementary school will share some common factors, such as aptitude and family support, but it’ll also involve a lot of uncertainty/luck too, such as an untimely accident or falling into the wrong crowd when in Secondary/High school).
Innate heuristic intuitive predictions tend to be overconfident and overly extreme – unusually extreme current evidence tends to lead to overly extreme future predictions. Thus a better system two heuristic may be to start with an estimate of the relevant reference global average or base rate value (e.g. 100), make an initial guess of the future value for the current case based on the current evidence (e.g. 115), estimate the proportion of shared/common factors to uncertainty/luck between the present and the future (e.g. it’s 70% intrinsic aptitude and 30% luck), then adjust your initial guess towards the global average or base rate by the amount that’s deemed down to luck (i.e. 115 – 0.3(115 – 100) = 110.5). This’ll account for the effect of regression to the mean due to factors that are down to luck or uncertainty.
This breaks the problem down and questions how much you think you know. The more the present evidence is relevant and predictive of the future, and therefore the less something is down to chance factors, then the less one needs to account for regression. This strategy – involving critical system two – dampens runaway optimism or pessimism based on having limited data points, which could’ve been unusually exceptional/extreme ones.
But sometimes it’s worth a punt or safer to call an extreme or rare future outcome, such as backing a person or young venture or denying a risky loan – there are times when guessing too far one way would be worse than guessing too far the other way. Rare events can and do happen occasionally – however, if you’re straying from the rational then you’ll do well to remain aware that you are, to consider a range of uncertainty around the most likely outcome, and to make sure the risks are worth it.
Meow. Overall, when we’re relying on our intuitions, we’ve got to question whether we genuinely have a trained skill in the specific area in question or we’re just relying on heuristics like stereotypes, confirmation biases or other biases or fallacies. They both come to us as ‘feelings’. If a decision is important and we have the time, we might as well slow down and go through our critical reasonings to check, and hope the answers aren’t just based on emotions.