The power of the subconscious

Until recently, I fiercely believed in the power of intuition. Not in a chakra kind of way, with candle light and mysterious insights dawning on you after staring at a wall cross legged for a few days. No, my faith in intuition was based on the fact that our subconscious mind can absorb so much more information than our awareness, that is confined to six or seven items at a time.

I never believed in the traditional dichotomy of thinking and feeling, with intuition catalogued as the latter. It seemed and seems to me that feelings are an outcome of brain activity. A sort of overall qualification; positive-negative, relax-alert.

Untying the knots

When faced with complex matters, I relied on my intuition. Not in a simple stupid way, but after feeding it facts about the issue at stake. I talked to people and dug down the first layer of their stories, I asked the same questions over and over to different people, I chased figures, searched for benchmarks, – the whole shebang.
But I never believed in adding these facts, weighing them and then taking some kind of mathematically induced decision, especially not if my head was still sizzling with the intake.

Instead I would sleep on it, trusting that the knots under my skull would busy themselves searching for associations with their little brothers and sisters in there, while I was resting. These dense nodes of braincells would be weighing the evidence, letting their multitude vote for the final verdict, and shove it right under my nose the next day, by way of a breakfast treat. Everything sorted out. Thank you very much.

The fallacies of intuition

But now I am reading this book called “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman. It explains the ways of the intuitive (fast and effortless) and conscious brain (slow, tedious and very lazy). Whenever we let it, our brain sneakily slides into effortless mode. Kahneman calls the brain our machine for jumping to conclusions, and points out that although this may come in handy when crossing a road, it is far less adequate when solving complicated issues . All the fallacies of fast thinking parade through the book. Ouch!

Stories versus numbers

The fast brain particularly doesn’t digest numbers. It ignores percentages and likelihoods, and loves averages. Which is why you should never have an open discussion before letting people estimate something like a quantity. It will spoil the accuracy because too much importance will be given to dominant speakers, causing others to line up behind them. To make optimal use of people’s diversity, you should let them estimate quantities individually. Their combined mistakes will even out quite accurately.

The fast brain loves a good story, and effortlessly smoothes out all its inconsistenties to construct a simplified and coherent world view – even when based on scraps of information and small samples. Our fast forward mode hates doubt (too much work) to the extent that after a first impression most subsequent information goes to waste.

These tendencies cause the framing effect (you probably prefer a 90% survival to a 10% death rate?) and the base rate neglect (do you think that meek and tidy Steve is a farmer or a librarian? … You probably ignored the fact that there are much more farmers than librarians.) And we over estimate the prevalence of unusual and poignant stories over ordinary ones (reading Factfulness by Hans Rosling and Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker may immunize against that one).

The broken dishes study – less is more

One striking example of distortion by intuition is interesting for marketeers. A group directly compares two sets of dinnerware (one consists of of 24 pieces, one of the very same 24 pieces, plus 16 partially broken ones). When people are asked which set is worth more, they will say it’s the latter because it includes more. The rule of logic prevails.
But when separate groups each assess the worth of a single set, it turns out that the 24 pieces set is valued more than the 40 pieces set; the lower average value has dominated their evaluation. The rule of intuition imposed itself.

Anchoring effect – suggestive priming

The anchoring effect distorts judgment when people consider a particular value before estimating another one. The suggested value primes your estimate even when the values are unrelated.
This means that starting a price negotiation is generally a smart thing to do. The asked number will affect the other person even when he is determined to resist it. And it turns out professionals are almost as susceptible to this anchoring as laymen.

Anchoring effects are extremely powerful in decisions about money, like contributing to a cause. In one experiment the autonomous contribution was 64 dollar, a low anchor of 5 dollar decreased contributions to a mere 20 dollar. An extravagant anchor of 400 dollar on the other hand, pushed it to 143 dollar.

Challenge your intuition

The bad news for me is that being a social psychologist does not save me from these fallacies. At university we were fed facts and figures, when storytelling would have been better.

After reading the book I don’t intend to stop relying on my intuition, that would slow me down too much in my daily life that is littered with fast decisions. But I do want to single out important matters, and occasionally force my brain to challenge my lazy intuitions – and question those of others.

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