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Gut Feelings

vpizzini's picture

The exploration of intuition and rational decision making within the human brain's thinking process has been a pivotal topic over the ages for philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists and neurobiologists. Intuition is a neurological based behavior that allows human to respond rapidly to unexpected situations; generally in this decision making process, the more variables are considered, the harder is to make the "right" decision. In fact, Gigerenzer believes that our decisions originates in the unconscious and are based on intellectual heuristic processes. Statistical and logical processes, unless are not combined with intuitions, are often inefficient. Simplicity is an evolutionary adaptation to uncertainty: A complex problem demands a complex solution, so we are told. In fact, in unpredictable environments, the opposite is true. Our brains evolved in order to make the most immediate and efficient decision. We all have innate and unconscious rules that guide us exploring the world and make us responsive to particular environmental clues.

Gigerenzer tries to prove, with different examples, that "rules of thumb" are better than any rational analysis in general.  In particular, he gave the example of the professional baseball player, when he catches a fly ball. If you ask the player how can he do that, he is probably not able tell you his technique; however, researchers have concluded that the player fixes his gaze on the ball in air, he starts running, then he regulates his speed in a way that the angle of his gaze does not change. It seems that unconsciously, his brain is making physical calculations in order to accomplish his goal, but, in practice, this process is based on his prior experience. In fact, all the player has to remember consciously is to keep his eye on the ball in the air.

Gigerenzer also demonstrates how it is possible to apply such strategy to medical diagnoses, social situations, and business questions.  When he examines the decisions we make, he shows that our instinct not only leads the better practical decision, but also the instinct itself underlies moral choices that make our society to function. Even experts count on intuition to make their judgments and in order to do that they might decide to ignore available information and data. These, of course, are not impulsive responses, but evolved procedures that create superior choices.

Gut Feelings is sometimes repetitive, but, at the same time, this characteristic makes the book accessible for the layperson. However, I believe that it would have been more interesting if Gigerenzer had gone into more details about how to use his conclusions. Of course intuition could play an important role in medical diagnoses. In fact, I think that the examples of how health care practitioners base their diagnosis on rules of thumb could be a very promising use of heuristics, but why and how does a health care practitioner trust intuition?

Furthermore, I think that his considerations into moral behavior could appear restrictive. Gigerenzer states that gut feelings underlie moral choices that make our society to function, but this means that instinct could be shaped by the culture and by the society in which a particular individual lives. During the course we discussed the role of culture in defining and perceiving Mental Health and form our discussions the stigma seem to be originated by the social and cultural laws that makes a particular society to function. Mental Health is a very complex topic and in order to define a mental illness and the effect on a particular individual, different factors must be considered together. Since gut feelings are the result of unconscious mental processes derived from the environment and in the decision-making process only account for the more useful information instead of evaluating all other possible factors, I think that the idea of the less you know the better we are making choices cannot be successfully applied to Mental Health. Our instinct does not tell us to help a person screaming and laying on the street, rather it tells us to avoid him and be safe form a possible danger.

After reading this book, I believe that gut feelings can be powerful in humans but only if the person that is using them has a great extent of knowledge, not just cultural beliefs, that unconsciously guide his decision-making process.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Gut feelings and mental health

That the cognitive unconscious is indeed quite good at some pretty sophisticated judgements is becoming increasingly clear, and Gigerenzer is one of the people who have been responsible for making the relevant observations (see Malcom Gladwell's Blink for a popular treatment). And that in turn indeed raises some new questions: when to trust it and what is the role of conscious/rational thought. For more along these lines, have a look at Making Sense of Understanding: The Three Doors of Serendip, a new Serendip exhibit. Yep, gut feelings might indeed tell us to avoid rather than help "a person screaming and laying on the street." Hence a role for the story teller?