Dec 17 2012

Trusting Intuition vs Analysis

We all make decisions every day. I started out my day deciding what to wear, following by a decision of what to write about for this morning’s blog post.  Most decisions are small and likely have insignificant consequences, but even small decisions can have a large cumulative effect. Some decisions are huge and can have dramatic effects on the course of our lives or the lives of others. Studying human decision-making, therefore, seems to be a useful endeavor, one likely to have implications for critical thinking.

The current dominant model of decision making is the so-called dual-process approach. Decision-making is seen as coming in two flavors: intuitive-affective, or system I, decision-making is based upon our “gut-feelings”, while analytical system II processing is based upon careful analysis. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and researchers are busy trying to  sort out which approach is superior in which circumstances.

Intuitive decision-making has the advantage of being quick. We get an overall feeling for a situation, based upon evolved emotions and heuristics and modified by our own experiences, and can act quickly on such feelings. The disadvantage of this approach is that it is highly susceptible to bias and may not properly weigh important details.  The analytic approach has the advantage of being detail-oriented, logical, and quantitative and can be highly evidence-based, given a statistically accurate weight to each factor considered. The analytic approach is specifically designed to weed out bias and faulty thinking. The disadvantage of the analytic approach is that it is time and effort intensive, and it is only as good as the evidence that feeds into it.

There is a bit of a “battle” going on between cognitive researchers as to which strategy is overall superior – the “blink vs think” controversy. The term “blink” comes from the book by the same name by Malcolm Gladwell that essentially lays out the subconscious process of intuitive decision-making. This question is interesting for everyday life, but has great implications for certain professions, such as my own profession as a neurologist. There is even a literature dedicated to the question of medical decision-making.

On the other side there is the book (and then movie), Moneyball. This is the story of the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, Billy Beane, who pioneered an analytical system of choosing players (what he called sabermetrics) and applied it over the intuitive system of experts (managers, coaches, and scouts) evaluating potential players based on more traditional methods. The approach was a huge success and has changed the way professional baseball teams evaluate players – based more on statistics that have been shown to correlate with positive outcomes.

So far a few consistent factors seem to be emerging from the research. One is that the relative value of intuitive vs analytical decision-making depends highly on the situation. Situations that require quick decisions, such as sports, heavily rely upon the intuitive approach. For example, in one study involving team handball, players who made intuitive decisions performed faster and better than those taking a more analytical approach. Another study, however, showed that when playing chess, detailed move analysis resulted in more optimal choices, even for those players who are highly experienced and intuitive chess players, and regardless if the problem were easy or difficult.

Some researchers believe that this is related to the fact that intuitive decision-making is better adapted to non-linear decision trees involving imperfect information, while analytical decision-making is better suited to linear or algorithmic decision trees based upon objective evidence.

Level of expertise also seems to play a role in outcome. Greater expertise results in better intuitive decision-making, but not analytical decision-making. This suggests that the role of experience in intuitive decision-making is significant. It also suggests, in my opinion, that analytical decision-making is a great leveler – no matter what your experience, if you apply a detailed analytical approach you can come to a reliable decision.

Interestingly, there is research into the effects of age on decision-making. As we get older our emotional intelligence increases, and this helps our intuitive decision-making. However, older adults also may experience cognitive decline, which can impair their analytical decision-making. So essentially older adults in general get better at intuitive decision-making and worse at analytical decision-making.

If I were to summarize all of this I would say that overall analytical decision-making is superior for important decisions. It is worth taking the time to consider evidence, statistics, and outcomes. Further, the analytical approach is the great equalizer- everyone can benefit from careful analysis. The exception to this is in situations where rapid complex decision-making is necessary for optimal or competitive performance, such as in some sports. Further, it is worth listening to your intuition, at least as a starting point. Your intuitive feelings are likely to give you useful information, but then I would back it up with some analysis, including for sources of bias. Intuition, however, seems to be highly dependent on expertise, but expertise is still no guarantee that intuition will be optimal (such as in Moneyball).

It’s OK to blink, as long as you also think.


19 responses so far

19 thoughts on “Trusting Intuition vs Analysis”

  1. ccbowers says:

    I find that in most significant decisions I take my initial reactions/thoughts/feelings seriously, but then attack it with more careful analysis to see if it stands up to scrutiny. If I’m still not confident, I repeat the process until I’m satisfied that I’m making the best decision given the evidence. Sometimes that may mean taking a mental break from the decision, and reevaluating at a later time. I do this for all types of decisions from work related problem solving to significant purchases. Sometimes that means decisions take a while, but I’m comfortable with that as long as the time spent is consistent with decision (avoiding paralysis by analysis, which this process can lead to)

  2. RickK says:

    You’ve covered this before, but the danger is when the intuitive system (System 1 or “Gut”) declares a preference and the analytical system (System 2 or “Head”) is just used to rationalize Gut’s decision. This is where critical, challenging self-testing is key.

    Interesting read: “The Science of Fear” by Daniel Gilbert which presents the work of Daniel Kahneman, Thomas Gilovich and others on our decision-making processes (and how they’re manipulated).

  3. mlegower says:

    Be careful attributing the term “sabermetrics” to Beane. I think it was Bill James who coined it.

  4. nybgrus says:

    I think I have to disagree with a little bit Dr. Novella.

    What I take away from this research is that analytical decision making will always yield the best outcome but that intuitive decision making is a convenient short cut which can approximate analytical decision making in certain cases.

    In other words, it is like the difference between Newtonian and quantum physics. Quantum phsyics is always correct and always more correct than Newtonian physics. But for most practical applications Newtonian approximations are close enough that taking the extra time to calculate out all the quantum equations is superfluously detailed.

    The other aspect of Type I decision making is the “ability” to make logical leaps where the data is lacking. In other words a strictly Type II approach would get stymied when the algorithm runs out of data on which to make hard decisions. Type I approach would allow you to “skip over” that data gap and continue on.

    I would also argue that the reason why experience leads to better Type I decision making is because much of the data needed is internalized over time and thus the heuristics used to approximate an answer become more refined and model more closely what a Type II decision tree would be in the circumstance. The reality is everything is a statistical process and even Type I decision making requires choosing a branch in the algorithm that is most likely at the given juncture. As we learn more and internalize more data, become better at pattern recognition, and memorize more and more of the Type II algorithms, our Type I heuristics become more accurate approximations to the point where in many cases there is no clinically or practically relevant difference between the outcome of a Type I vs II decision (but that difference is still there in most cases).

    This is where the clinician “experience” comes in. Attending physicians don’t possess magical abilities that make their random guesses better than mine. They possess much more knowledge and pattern recognition ability that allows them to have their “guesses” be more refined and accurate than mine (and of course much more knowledge to accurately engage in Type II decision making than I can). When a seasoned attending walks in and makes a complicated diagnosis on the spot it is because (s)he has learned enough and seen enough that the “gut” decision is much more likely to be a close approximation of the Type I diagnosis than mine would. It also explains why Type II reasoning in the same circumstance would (should) yield the same answer from myself and the seasoned attending.

  5. EO says:

    Its a bit difficult for me to mix this conversation with such vastly different things as sports and medicine. There are things I would tolerate and even embrace about Type I decision-making in sports that would horrify me in something like medicine or engineering.

    In sports I love the idea that a player makes his decision by intuition or ‘feeling.’ I love it when a late-round draft pick or un-drafted free agent makes it big. I (as an atheist) even like it when someone like Tim Tebow has success on the field after being maligned as a player by critical analysts.

    Yet, if you applied any of these thoughts to medicine or engineering I would disown them in a heartbeat.

  6. locutusbrg says:

    I agree with NYBGRUS, medicine should be methodical. However there are situations that are fluid and sometime require intuitive approaches supported by experience. An example of a intuitive approach is; burn victims in the ED. When an large amount of certain plastics are involved in a fire victims can suffer cyanide inhalation. Sometimes there are no direct clues. As the saying goes by the time you figure out they have cyanide poisoning they are already dead. With experience you begin to learn that they have a particular appearance and you administer antidote immediately. There is no specific vital sign, color or respiratory pattern that gives it away, it is a total picture. In that case experience and intuitive insight has a place. inexperienced doctors miss it experienced catch it. If you wait for hard data you may not get a chance to save them. There are many examples. The Lay public expect factual infallibility. In reality medical treatment is a very complex balance of facts, individuals, experience, and options.

  7. SARA says:

    There are processes that one would consider prime candidates for analytical thinking, that don’t fair well in out come.
    Interviewing people for jobs is one.
    People lie, subjective questions are not good indicators of actual performance, and if my HR director is to be believed, analytical tests are not good indicators of performance either.
    The problem is that any sub conscious bias you may have against a group will be reflected in your intuitive decisions as well.

  8. jlh says:

    >> “Further, it is worth listening to your intuition, at least as a starting point. Your intuitive feelings are likely to give you useful information, but then I would back it up with some analysis, including for sources of bias.” <<

    While this is true, I think it is actually more important to remember *not* to trust your intuition if you have time to analyze something with type-II thinking for the reason RickK mentions. It is far too easy for your analytical thinking self to merely provide support for (and hardening of) the answer your intuition already came to.

    This seems obvious in research that shows that the more scientific knowledge people have the more polarized they become on divisive issues. The extra knowledge helps their system-II thinking provide rationalization for their intuitive belief. If people are more aware that they need to question their current position especially when they are analyzing it, I would think it would help them reduce confirmation and other biases.

  9. ccbowers says:

    “What I take away from this research is that analytical decision making will always yield the best outcome but that intuitive decision making is a convenient short cut which can approximate analytical decision making in certain cases.
    In other words, it is like the difference between Newtonian and quantum physics.”

    The trouble with the physics analogy is that it is a much more narrow comparison. In the decision making situation, there is a possibility than the preferred approach may depend on situation and nature of the problem. I tend to agree with you that in most instances the system II approach will result in a ‘better’ answer, but I’m not sure that that is a universal assumption that can be made. The topic he brought up was sports, which is a good one because time becomes a major constraint. Perhaps it is simply the time constraint that makes the difference in that case. Also decisions vary widely from choosing a cereal in the morning to interpreting complex social cues, so I’m not sure that one approach would always be better than the other, particularly when data is lacking. I guess I’m not disagreeing with you, but I tend to agree with Steve’s hedge.

  10. nybgrus says:

    I don’t think it is so far off as you do.

    I never said that the Type II decision making would always be suitable to the situation. Merely that it would give the best outcome. In cases where time is a factor, Type I decision making is not the best but is necessary. In cases where this is someone’s life in the balance – say ER medicine – then it become necessary to refine and practice scenarios from a Type II perspective and gain experience to refine the accuracy of the Type I decision.

    I suppose you are technically right in that “outcome” may be too broad a term, since we do tend to include time and efficiency as metrics of an outcome. In that case, let me change my word to “answer” and leave the rest as is.

    Type II decision making will always yield the more correct answer, but most times it is impractical, the extra precision in the decision making wouldn’t be different enough to matter, or time is of the essence and Type I decision making is necessary. But I doubt anyone would disagree that if we had a magic button that could slow down time (i.e. completely remove time and efficiency considerations from the equation) in the ER that Type II decision making wouldn’t be preferred for optimal outcomes.

  11. ccbowers says:

    I guess if we are just using type II thinking to refine our type I result, then the only way that type II could be worse is if processing the added information somehow interfered with the decision making. I can’t rule that out in practice, but in theory more information (assuming good information) should lead to a better result and I agree with you.

    To be a contrarian (helps me refine my thoughts), perhaps we could use sports again (may apply to quick social interactions, such as sales). This is a bit cliche, but in sports athletes are sometimes said to “overthink” instead of “react” when they fail to perform a simple act. If a person who catches a ball for a living had to think about how much force each of his fingers were applying to the ball, and perhaps how far to extend his/her arms, legs etc…all of this analysis may actually impair the end result. One can view of of this as a series of small decisions about how to perform the action. Now perhaps the impairment witnessed in “overthinking” is all due to the time constraint (an issue we can set aside since we all agree about this) or perhaps the type II decision making interfered with the motor action (therefore not directly with the decision), but there is an additional possibility: that type II decisions are not as good when dealing with many variables simultaneously with many unknown factors in which pattern recognition may be important. Now I don’t know that this is true, but I’m just not sure. I’m just trying to disagree =)

  12. Jared Olsen says:

    Heuristics vs Skepticism. I wonder if that’s a fair summation?

  13. jschwarz says:

    According to Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”. System I is always proposing decisions and System II sometimes kicks in to analyze them further. You can’t suppress the type I processing, all you can do is sometimes have type II processing intervene to override them. An interesting aspect of this (which Kahnneman mentions, but doesn’t pursue very much) is that you can train yourself to recognize situations in which System I is likely to give the wrong answers. It’s important to do this, and it seems to be the kind of thing that System I would be good at.

  14. Factoidjunkie says:

    I have examined this issue on several occasions over the past few years and prefer to consider “from blink to think” rather than “blink VERSUS think.” Kahneman (work and bias towards System 2 or analytic thinking) and Gary Klein (work and bias towards System 1 or intuitive thinking) both have persuasive evidence for their modality of investigation. Kenneth Hammonds work on how these two systems complement each other is enlightening. Many if not most of social complexity cannot be totally decided by analysis alone, since in many cases relevant factors are not clear or misunderstood. Analysis is surely helping, but we simply don’t have the sophistication to understand complex social dynamics.

    The Moneyball example is a fascinating example of this. Analysis of known factors in a limited system (baseball) aided a team’s record for a time. What it cannot do is comment on factors it doesn’t analyze because they are not known to the analysts. In those cases, intuition can come to the aid of judgment, especially when the intuition is in the hands of an open-minded expert in the field of analysis.

    Simply put, judgment is not an either/or system – it requires a range of thinking from intuition to analysis.

  15. eiskrystal says:

    I never said that the Type II decision making would always be suitable to the situation. Merely that it would give the best outcome.

    Conscious thought doesn’t always seem to have access to the same amount of intuition and general pattern recognition… and when it does it is usually getting them from the Type I system as biases and emotions anyway. So the logical approach may in certain circumstances give a worse outcome than a flash judgement due to over analysis, lack of analyzable type data or starting with false premises then taking them too far.

    I wouldn’t use logic to calculate what a friends facial expression means. Best to leave it to the highly evolved but slightly inaccessible systems we have and the years of facial recognition practice. It’s also exhausting to use System II constantly.

  16. tmac57 says:

    eiskrystal- Here is a funny bit that combines how over analyzing one’s ‘gut’ can go wrong:

    A little bit of both modes at work there,I would say 🙂

  17. BillyJoe7 says:


    If the facial expressions are spontaneous, then rely on type 1. But are they spontaneous? Or has the other person manufactured them via type 2? To answer both these question will require you to invoke type 2 because type 1 will lead you astray. In other words, it’s always worth attending to type 2. Even when you go with type 1, keep type 2 in the background ready and waiting.

    But perhaps I’m overthinking this. (:

  18. tmac57 says:

    BillyJoe7-In addition to what you wrote,I am constantly being asked what I am frowning about,as though I am in a bad mood,but in fact I might just be trying to work out a problem,or be concentrating on a complex task,and I am rarely in a bad mood in any case.

  19. ztech says:

    System 1 allows for processing with high variable uncertainty, including generating statistical based inferences and the pre-analytic process of set generation/linearization of relationship (which involves selection and ordering by either statistical structure, brute force, or some combination). Basically, System 1 does a lot of background work, and it’s high speed allows for reduced load in high level problem solving. Analytic (linearized) reasoning , is utilized on a set which is complete (selected and ordered), (eg, 2, 4, 6 , 8 ?), but it is heuristics/intuitive processes which proceed it, that form these sets (in a provided set, (2,4,6,8) one can rely on basic visual grouping to identify a set, but when elements of a set are spatially/temporally scattered, it is System 1’s associative/heuristic which allows for a novel formation). System 1 Any complete model of human reasoning , would have to respect the long standing empirical philosophy of mind, and would need to include system 1 processes.

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