In his bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011) notes that our brains contain two systems of thought: System 1 which “… operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” (Id. at 20) and System 2 which “…allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations….” (Id. at 21.)

Thus, while System 1 is quick, automatic and requires little or no effort, System 2 is deliberative, effortful and requires our attention and concentration. (Id. at 22-23.).  As a consequence, most of our cognitive errors and biases occur within System 1 since it operates unconsciously and cannot be turned off. System 2, on the other hand, because it requires a lot of effort and attention, will literally deplete our mental energy through our expenditure of glucose. When this occurs, we will fall back on System 1 for decision making and being tired, and hungry, will make poor decisions.

In short- System 1 is what we all “intuition”, our “sixth sense” or “gut feeling”.

While Professor Kahneman cautions against placing our complete trust in System 1 thinking, a recent study  appears to take  some issue with this. In an article published online in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, researchers developed a technique that measures or actually quantifies intuition. (Measuring Intuition: Nonconscious Emotional Information Boosts Decision Accuracy and Confidence by Galang Lufityanto, Chris Dokin and Joel Pearson, Psychological Science, May 2016, pp. 622-634)

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Based on their experiments, the researchers found that people do use their intuition “to make faster, more accurate and confident decisions…” ( The Science of Intuition : How to Measure “Hunches” and “Gut Feelings” by Cari Nierenberg, LiveScience, May 20, 2016( ), That is, intuition actually does exist and can be measured.

To make this finding, the researchers developed a series of experiments “…to determine whether people were using their intuition to help guide their decision making or judgment.“ (Id.)  In these experiments,

the researchers showed small groups of about 20 college students black-and-white images of dots moving around on one half of a computer screen. The researchers asked the students to decide whether the dots were generally moving to the left or to the right. As the participants made this decision, on the other side of the computer screen, they saw a bright, flashing square of color.

But sometimes, the researchers embedded an image into the colorful square that was designed to trigger an emotional response from the participants. For example, each image was aimed at eliciting either a positive emotion (a puppy or a baby) or a negative emotion (a gun or a snake). However, the participants were not aware that they were being shown these emotional images because they flashed at speeds too fast to be consciously perceived.

These subliminal images were meant to simulate the type of information involved in intuition — they were brief, emotionally charged and subconsciously perceived.

The results showed that when the participants were shown the positive subliminal images, they did better on the task: They were more accurate in determining which way the dots were moving. But they also responded more quickly and reported feeling more confident in their choice.   

The experiments also suggested that the participants became better at using their intuition over time, Pearson said. “It’s all about learning to use unconscious information in your brain,” he said. Just as people can become more comfortable making decisions when they apply logic and reasoning, they may also become more adept at trusting their intuition when they use it more frequently over time, the study revealed.  (Id.)

According to these researchers, intuition may assist people to make better decisions given the right situation if it provides additional valuable information to what is already present in our subconscious. (Id.)

This study reminds me of the thesis of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little Company and Brown, New York/Boston 2005) in which he argues that our gut feelings can be useful when based on knowledge and experience. But still, in light of Professor Kahneman’s thesis, I am not sure what to make of this recent study. Can they both exist side by side: Our system 1 thinking is error prone except when based on knowledge and experience?  When we are trying to resolve a dispute, should we rely on our “gut”? Or, should we rely on our “experience” and “knowledge” ? Or, both?  This newest research raises some interesting questions! No doubt, another future  research study will provide some answers (if not, raise new questions!).

… Just something to think about.



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