A lingering belief that intuition is magic

I’m just going to keep quoting from Thinking Fast and Slow a lot, because it’s that good. So expect it as a regular thing.

It is wrong to blame anyone for failing to forecast accurately in an unpredictable world. However, it seems fair to blame professionals for believing they can succeed in an impossible task. Claims for correct intuitions in an unpredictable situation are self-delusional at best, sometimes worse. In the absence of valid cues, intuitive “hits” are due either to luck or to lies. If you find this conclusion surprising, you still have a lingering belief that intuition is magic. Remember this rule: intuitions cannot be trusted in the absence of stable regularities in the environment. [p 241]

Good, eh?


  1. Bjarte Foshaug says

    I love these books, like Thinking – Fast and Slow, that deal with the psychology of belief and self-deception, including heuristics and biases, cognitive dissonance and rationalization, cognitive illusions, patternicity and agenticity, the fallibility of perception and memory etc.

    When talking to people who hold all kinds of wacky beliefs, I often find that going straight for the scientific evidence (to the degree that I understand it myself) is like building a skyscraper and starting with the tenth floor. The strongest indicators of truth vs. falsehood – objectively speaking (i.e. the ones we label as “scientific”) – rarely overlap with what seems most intuitively persuasive to most people most of the time.

    Hardly anyone believes anything for what they consider to be bad reasons. It’s just that most people rarely ask themselves “Why do I find these kinds of reasons so much more persuasive than those, and am I really justified in doing so?”. To many people, a single gripping anecdote or personal experience trumps everything that resembles controlled experiments or statistics, although it really ought to be the other way around it the goal is getting closer to the truth. Until we have managed to make a dent in the very powerful intuition most people have that they know a good reason when they see it, simply presenting the evidence rarely persuades anyone in my experience.

  2. Georgia Sam says

    “In the absence of valid cues …” The other side of that coin is that valid cues can sometimes be very subtle. My definition of intuition (which I recognize that others may not share) is the ability to pick up those subtle cues. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not taking the side of the clinicians against the number-crunchers. I agree with the last sentence of that quote. I summarize my take on intuition versus rationality this way: Intuition unaided by rationality leads one to jump to conclusions. Rationality unaided by intuition can lead one to overlook potentially important clues.

  3. says

    Bjarte, I love them too, and this one is in a league of its own.

    Just that one thing I quoted the other day about answering an easy question instead of the hard one you’re trying to answer, and not noticing the substitution – bonnnnnng. Recognized.

  4. Lyanna says

    Yeah, Georgia’s right–that “in the absence of valid cues” is doing a whole lot of work in the argument!

  5. athyco says


    Until we have managed to make a dent in the very powerful intuition most people have that they know a good reason when they see it, simply presenting the evidence rarely persuades anyone in my experience.

    Criminy, I wish I could argue with that. I have also far too recent experience with a perspective impervious to evidence. Yeeeech.

    Then again, if denting the intuition has to be one of the first steps, better that I know that and figure out ways to do it.

  6. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    Georgia Sam:

    I think this is rather the whole of the idea. Intuitions may or may not be useful in a case, but they are only useful as one of many inputs to a beginning, where the magical-thinking sorts will trust an intuition as a wholesale conclusion. And it is conclusions (predictions) which are the subject of concern.

    It’s a bit like the “thinking outside the box” model mentioned earlier: Hey, good, don’t be stuck in the rut of tradition, but just because you came up with a new idea and a really lovely narrative in which it neatly embeds, this does not mean that your new thing is even congruent with reality. Work must be done after such potential insights are had – testing, checking, etc.

    So, yeah.

  7. says

    Brings to mind Dubbya’s insistence that even though he was aware that the death penalty had been amply proved NOT to be a deterrent, he still supported it because of his “gut feeling” that it IS a deterrent.

    Government by intuition, in the face of contradictory facts… (shudders)

  8. says

    Yes…and the great thing about Kahneman is that he doesn’t let us off the hook, “us” being people who at least have nodding acquaintance with the idea that intuition isn’t magic. In a chapter I’ve just read he tells a story about a curriculum project he originated and worked on in Israel years ago. There was a point at which they decided to talk about their chances of success – the very subject of the curriculum – and were flabbergasted when one of them managed to remember actual examples and came up with a very pessimistic stat. And what did they do? They went ahead anyway, and the project pretty much failed. It was completed, after far more years than their starting estimate, but it was ignored and the textbook they wrote was never used.

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