Sunday, September 25, 2011

Don't Second-Guess Your Gut

Anyone who follows me on Twitter probably witnessed my abject geek-spasm at the possibility of seeing (as Sarah Laurenson phrased it) a flaming schoolbus cross the sky, i.e. the UARS satellite as it flamed out in the atmosphere. Y'see, it was gonna be passing right over me at the time it was estimated to be due to bite the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, UARS proved to be a ninja satellite. No one saw it sneak in. That tricksy metal minx.

But that's okay; I found something of equal geeky worth to tell you about tonight!

Wired posted this article about making hard decisions, which led me to this article about intuitive thinking

The second article mentions some interesting experiments, and the one I found most intriguing was where they noted that if you ask people to answer the following:
Are these sentences literally true?
-- Some jobs are snakes.
-- Some jobs are jails.
-- Some roads are snakes.
...their response times slow down measurably on the second and third sentences.

In fact, you probably noticed that effect yourself when you were reading the three sentences. The knowledge that the second and third may be metaphorically be true interrupted your determination of whether they were literally true.

That's because your "Type 1" (or "intuitive") thinking is very fast and often provides more information than is actually available. It's the type of thinking that makes associations, that provides leaps of logic, that fills in the blank spots.

Type 2 thinking requires more effort, but it gives you answers based on the evidence that is really there. To quote the article:
Type 1 is automatic, effortless, often unconscious, and associatively coherent ... Type 2 is controlled, effortful, usually conscious, tends to be logically coherent, rule-governed.
And this is why your brain slowed down reading the second two sentences. The parts of your brain responsible for Type 2 thinking were doing their thing, slowly and rationally, and then the parts of your brain responsible for Type 1 thinking got to an associative answer faster and blurted it out, so to speak.

Then, after that interruption, your Type 1 thinking resumed and got to the correct answer.

Now, that's not to say you shouldn't trust your Type 1 thinking. In fact, that's the point the first article makes: when it comes to making a decision based on very complex information, your intuitive, Type 1 thinking can often do a better job than your rational, Type 2 thinking.
[R]esearchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be “smarter” than reasoned deliberation. This is largely because the unconscious is able to handle a surfeit of information, digesting the facts without getting overwhelmed. (Human reason, in contrast, has a very strict bottleneck and can only process about four bits of data at any given moment.) When confused in the toothpaste aisle, bewildered by all the different options, we should go with the product that feels the best.
The article describes an experiment that showed this. The researcher gave a group of subjects information about a set of 4 cars. Each car was rated according to 4 criteria, for a total of 16 pieces of information.

The subjects who were given a chance to think rationally about the information chose the best car about 50% of the time, and those who were distracted with an alternate task, then prompted to make a snap judgement about the cars, faired worse.

But that was the "easy" decision. The researcher then repeated the test with a different group of subjects but he instead gave them 12 pieces of information about each car, for a total of 48 peices of information.

The subjects who were give a chance to think rationally about the information in this case did very poorly. They chose the best car less than 25% of the time, i.e. they performed worse than random chance.

The subjects who were distracted, then asked to make a snap decision, however, chose the best car 60% of the time.

When faced with too much information, your rational mind becomes overwhelmed, but the intuitive mind--your "gut" instinct--performs better.

Interestingly, a group of researchers who reproduced these results found you could also undo your correct "gut instinct" choice if you tried to think rationally about the decision later. Your Type 2 thinking would get muddled by the complexity and cancel out the sureness you had felt when your Type 1 thinking produced the correct result.

Remember when you were in school and took a multiple choice test? Didn't it always seem like, if you changed an answer, it always turned out later that the first one had been correct? That may have been because your intuitive mind provided an answer your conscious, rational mind couldn't figure out, but then your conscious mind second-guessed that insight.

I find it fascinating (and beautiful) that science can actually address things that seem so magical as flashes of intuition and gut instinct. Pretty nifty stuff, and I hope it will help me listen to my instincts better when I'm feeling confused by complexity!

Ooh, and just to tie it all back to writing, in this "Show, Don't Tell" blog post, I noted that you can trust the reader's brain to fill in details, provided you give it enough to base its predictions on.

Now I can back that up with science! What is happening is that if you give the reader's brain enough information to trigger their Type 1, or intuitive thinking, they will come up with a more complete picture than would be possible if they were assembling their understanding based only on the information you provide.

The principle of "Show, Don't Tell" is about triggering the intuitive mind.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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