Can we trust our hunces? John Coates, a neuroscientist and former Wall Street trader, answers this question saying that we should first recognize that intuition is not an occult gift – it is a skill.
Important insights about this topic come from what began as a dispute and developed into a collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, two scientist who studied the decision making processes. At first Khanneman doubted the reliability of intuition, while Klein believed in it. As they hashed out their disagreement, it became apparent that their different views stemmed from the types of people they were studying. Klein was working with people who had developed an expertise in fast decision making: firefighters, paramedics, fighter pilots. Kahneman, for his part, was working with social scientists, political forecasters, stock pickers. So, why did one group show reliable intuition and the other did not?
Kahneman and Klein first agreed that intuition is the recognition of patterns. When we develop and practise a skill, we build up a memory bank of patterns we have lived through, and of which we have seen the consequences. Later, when encountering a new situation, we rapidly scroll through our files looking for a stored pattern that most closely remembers the new one. Chess grandmasters, for example, are said to store up to 10.000 board configurations which they access for clues on what to do next. Intuition is thus nothing more mysterious than recognition.
Give this point, Kahneman and Klein went on to conclude that intuitions can be relied on only if two conditions are met:
- first, people can develop an expertise only if they work in an environment that is regular enough to produce repeating patterns;
- second, they must encounter the patterns frequently and receive feedback on their performance quickly, for only in this way can they learn.
Chess grandmasters play game after game and they find out quickly if their move were right or not. Much the same can be said of paramedics, firefighters and fighter pilots. Political forecaster, on the other hand, inhabit a world that is fat too fluid and complex to produce patterns, and even if something like a pattern does emerge, it does so with such a long time lag that learning it may take a lifetime.
Remember Kahneman’s rule: intuition cannot be trusted in the absence of stable regularities in the environment. And what about you and your job? Can you rely on your gut feelings, even in a small part? Start observing the consequences of your actions and asking for feedback: you will build and feed your pattern recognition, thus increasing your intuition.
Adapted from John Coates, The hour between dog and wolf: risk taking, gut feelings and the biology of boom and bust – HarperCollins