Our intuition is an idiot!

Posted 2015-02-10 by Matt Way

What would you think if I told you that your understanding of intuition was likely the primary source of everything that may be wrong with your world model. It is spoken about a lot, but I get the feeling that not enough people have really given intuition enough thought. About what it is, or how it works. What is absolutely crazy to me though, is just how highly most people regard their intuition. Like it is some magical oracle that you mustn’t question. I mean just search twitter for ‘intuition’ or type ‘intuition’ into google images and look at the common theme:

  • “Intuition is the highest form of intelligence”
  • “Trust your gut”
  • “Intuition doesn’t lie”
  • “Intuition is a powerful thing, more powerful than intellect”
  • “Intuition is the ability of having direct perception to truth and fact, independent of any reasoning process”

Cue facepalm meme. Seriously, read that last one again, carefully. Let me ask you, if we have this magical ability to glean truth and fact outside of any reasoning process, then why the hell have we evolved that very process, which just so happens to coincide with the vast advancement of human society? Coincidence? Of course not. The irony here is that the popular intuition love affair comes from just that, your intuition.

You see, intuition can be distilled down to a very simple definition; cognitive laziness.

Let me explain. Human beings take in an enormous amount of data through their sensory arrays, practically non stop since birth. It would be both grossly inefficient, and detrimental to survival if every piece of incoming information had to be fleshed out and analysed in a rationally deep manner. So we have a complex, yet malleable set of processes that filter, integrate and analyse information very quickly, based on the model your brain has developed through its years of experience.

Now I get it; A mysterious emergent bubbling process provides you with some seeming insight. Why question it? If the year was 5000 BC then I would most likely agree with you. The problem is that todays world is insanely different. I mean it is 2015, and we have rockets, computers, the internet, and a population so big that managing our entire planet is a real topic of concern. Progress is occurring at a bewildering speed. You are so far removed from the days of hunting on african plains, that the requirement for deep rational analysis and introspection is quickly outweighing the advantage of a speedy intuition.

If you disagree, then you only need look at the massive set of our intuitive shortcomings. We fail with most statistical intuitions (see Monty Hall, Birthday Problem). We fail at science (see Flat Earth, Vitalism, Consciousness). We fail when our egos are put into question (see Geocentrism, Religion, Free Will). We have so many cognitive biases that amazing insights are intuitions exception, not its rule. All you need to do is ask yourself, does my passion for a particular topic honestly equal the amount of time I have spent analysing it? If not, then you are probably putting intuition mistakenly in the drivers seat.

But why do people tend to do this? Because rationality is hard! It is one of humanities newest tools, it takes energy and work to form a world model capable of consistently impressive insights. Now I am sure you are an expert in a few domains, and putting your intuitions up front while you work within them will definitely give you a performance edge. However there are countless other topics that you are not an expert in, and it is establishing this kind of modesty that is the first step to actually improving your intuition. Stop being intellectually lazy, and approach your internal world model with skepticism, assume it is wrong and work from there. If the topic is important, you should always second guess your intuition.

Now I am not instigating a coup against your intuitive processes, but rather asking you to reform your perspective about what exactly your intuition is. You should think of your intuition as an idiot genius. A savant like tool that renders a few amazing ideas in an ocean of general failure. A platform for epiphany and unexpected creativity. A potentially great tool in your arsenal of thought, but just a tool, and definitely not an all seeing eye.