When should we trust our intuitions? (Part 1)

Click on picture to view clip about the 'Monty Hall PRoblem'

Click on picture to view a clip about the ‘Monty Hall Problem’

Thursday 20th March 2014

The ‘Monty Hall Problem’ is to intuition what optical illusions are to sense perception: a way of testing the efficacy of our intuitions.  One implication of this test is that when it comes to numbers and probabilities, there is a ‘blind spot’ in our intuitions whose instantaneous ability to make swift connections between ideas often gets in the way of helping us to the right decision.  And yet, just like our senses are all we’ve got when it comes to observing the world around us, so our intuitions are all we’ve got when we have to think on our feet and make snap decisions (especially about numbers and…money.)

Medical doctors and professionals in all fields of work are often put into situations where intuitive decisions are crucial, especially when it’s a life or death scenario and they haven’t got time to waste to think things through.  In this sense, our intuitions are as important a part of our evolutionary heritage as any of our other psychological capacities.  Our capacity for intuition has ‘survival value’ and so was selected by evolution to ensure our species resisted the harsh and often deadly environment of our ancestors.

Today, intuition can be trained by immersing yourself in specialised knowledge in a chosen field – the more you are steeped in a working knowledge of your work and the more you practise using that knowledge, the more ingrained it becomes in your mind and body: Roger Federer hardly ‘thinks’ about how he’s going to approach the net and volley a winner.  Hours of practice and match time ensure that the movement is second nature to him; when the ball is hit short by his opponent, Federer moves in intuitively for the kill.

However, even the most knowledgeable (and powerful) of people can still get it wrong when they trust their intuitions.  The most famous recent example is that of the ex-President Bush’s ‘gut feeling’. When asked by a journalist why he had decided to invade Iraq, he allegedly replied: ‘I’m a gut player. I rely on my instincts.’ Had he thought through the evidence regarding the presence of WMD in Iraq (which were never found), many lives might have been saved on both sides.

Quite often, when intuition goes wrong, human beings have a tendency to rationalise their mistakes after the fact.  So if there’s no built in correction system to our intuitive capacity to make judgements, how can we minimise its leading us to the wrong decision?

Answer: find more problems like ‘Monty Hall’ and practise using your intuition (in safe circumstances, of course!)

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