We humans can sometimes leap to a conclusion without conscious thought. This subliminal intuitive process, “going with our gut,” may be just fine, provided our brain is indeed doing its behind-the-scenes work. In general, however, the following is true:
Can We Always Trust Our Intuition?
A study of science teaches that many facts are counter-intuitive. For example, intuition suggests that if you flip a coin three times and get heads, then the next flip will likely be tails. Actually (for an honest coin-flipping test), there is no improved chance of getting tails. Con artists have a long history of using such non-intuitive facts to beguilingly fleece unwary folks who, through faulty intuition, think that they are making safe bets, when the opposite is true. (An engaging old movie that demonstrates this point is The Flim-Flam Man.)
Gut-based decisions are more likely to be correct if we have deep experience with the issue being pondered. For example, although not intuitive to a young child, an adult learns through experience to avoid dark alleys, and to be very wary of street gangs. But there are numerous situations for which even an adult will have scant experience or knowledge. Worse, we can unknowingly encounter frauds who know how to look and act respectable in order to thwart our protective instincts. In these cases trusting our intuition can be quite hazardous.
Therefore it’s important to be sure that an intuitive insight is based on knowledge or experience. One way to do that is to examine a flash of inspiration and, upon reflection, see if you can construct the behind-the-scenes path your brain took to arrive at your intuitive conclusion. If it was based on logic, that’s good. If not, you need to ignore your gut.
Before You Go With The Gut,
Check It Out With The Brain
For example, assume one morning you wake up in a great mood and have this compelling thought: “Today’s the day I beat the roulette table at the casino!” Before you rush out to place your bets, why not examine your impulse? You will find, after Googling a bit of probability theory, that the force will not be with you, and furthermore, if you act on your inspiration on a grand scale, you will almost certainly go broke.
The avoidance of faulty intuition and emotional impulses is characteristic of the important principle of objectivity. This principle will be explored further in the next posts, but for now here are some simple guidelines for everyday life:
- Don’t blindly trust your intuition. [Engineers are expected to provide a blend of logical analysis and concrete testing to back up assertions.]
- Be wary of conflicts of interest and hidden agendas: Don’t believe information just because it was delivered by a smiling celebrity, a favored relative, a salesman with an honest face, a financial advisor who was recommended by your neighbor, an earnest frowning doctor, or a charismatic politician. [Engineers learn to ignore dazzling presentations and dig down to the unvarnished facts.]
- Don’t make a decision on a complex issue based on a single piece of data; research all of the available options. [Engineers who tend to jump to conclusions can expect to enjoy a brief career.]
- If someone makes a request that is based solely on emotions, just say “No.” [An emotional argument presented by an engineer to other engineers is good only for comic relief.]
- Resist those who press you to make quick decisions. [Some engineers — those with overly-demanding managers — find that this is often difficult to do.]
- Closely examine exalted claims, such as “free” offers and one-time-only “opportunities.” [Engineers learn to intently probe the truthfulness of claims made by sales reps, such as “super high efficiency,” which translated means “a zillion miles to the gallon.”]
- Seek out independent objective advice; e.g. if a surgical specialist tells you that you need surgery, get a second opinion from a knowledgeable non-specialist. The latter is more likely to be aware of various alternatives and will not be biased towards surgical solutions. [Engineers use the Design Review meeting — attended by a panel of experienced and sometimes cranky senior engineers — to help ensure objectivity.]
As a current-events example of using one of the above guidelines (examining exalted claims), consider the following:
Assertion by President Obama: The proposed reform of health care will be “paid for” by eliminating billions of dollars of waste and fraud in Medicare and Medicaid.
Assumption: The dollars of waste and fraud in Medicare/Medicaid are sufficient to pay for health care reform (this is dubious but will be assumed to be true).
- Medicare and Medicaid are run by the federal government.
- The government has been running these programs for many years, under both Democrat and Republican administrations.
- If massive waste and fraud have been occurring in those programs, that is the fault of the government, irrespective of which party controls the government.
Conclusion: It’s illogical to entrust the government with elimination of waste and fraud, because the government has proven itself incapable of preventing the waste and fraud in the first place.
Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?