Intuition – Calibration = Error

by F.

Gladwell’s Blink continues to sell. While Gladwell is a great writer, I have a feeling the explanation for the high sales figures is that Blink tells people something they want desperately to believe: they can “follow their gut” and get the right answers. Gerd Gigerenzer has a more nuanced view:

Should we care if a public official says he has a gut feeling about something? Should we place much stock in that?

It depends on whether your public official is an expert. There are many American politicians who say that they rely on their gut feelings — including your president, who said, “I’m a gut player.” On the other hand, we know that some people are real experts, and we can trust their gut feelings to a good degree, particularly if you are an expert in a situation where you have feedback and you can learn from it. But it’s less clear if one can learn from terrorist attacks. There are not so many of them, at least on American soil.

If you ask a mathematician about their “gut” on a question of probability, the answer is (probably) worth a lot more than if you ask someone who has never studied probability (since default intuitions about probability are usually wrong, e.g., “If I have a 50% change of getting Job A, and a 50% chance of getting Job B, then I’m sure to get a job!”) Yet, both these people may evince the same degree of confidence (and both may subjectively feel highly confident). But the former has had her intuition trained for years; the later has an intuition—period. Similarly for almost any domain.

I think this is where many “experts” go wrong. They have done something for a long time (say, designed toilet seats) but their intuition has never been subjected to feedback (from customers or whoever). Or the feedback loop is so long that the actual amount of feedback is insignificant. I remember this from bike racing. My coach would tell me to try some new training protocol and yet, because the number of races (i.e., the feedback) was so small, it was almost impossible to tell if the intervention had done any good.

And so here comes the obvious conclusion: the less intuitive something is, the more effort (time, feedback cycles) is needed to retrain your intuition (or you might call it “getting a new intuition.”) The more I learn, the more I think Von Neumann’s quip applies, not just to mathematics, but to everything: “In mathematics you don’t understand things,” he said. “You just get used to them.”