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Insight Cascades, pt. 2 — Intuition

Published: 2022-10-03

Frogs, dragonflies and Super Mario. The part where your rational mind tries to actively discredit intuition, to everyone's detriment.

One thing I would like to tell myself from a few years back is that intuition is a lot more powerful and takes into account much more than I gave it credit for.

The period in my life I’ve felt the most lost and despairing is also the time I consciously suppressed intuition I couldn’t explain in logical terms and reason about.

Conversely, many of the best decisions I’ve ever made were driven by a strong innate desire, even if I couldn’t explain them at the time. Or still.

There is information in your life, if you’re looking for transformation, but you have to teach yourself to attune to it.

Boyd Varty in an interview with Tim Ferriss, Feb. 18, 2022

A career is what philosopher Andrew Taggart calls “a first-person work-centric story of progress about an individual’s life course”. I find that quite apt. I spent almost a decade on a path I more or less fell into, and kept on doing it because it was fun and varied, and the people around me were smart. I also got decently good at doing the work. At some point it ceased to be fun, and started to become a drain on everything.

At that point I remember I felt a strong urge to leave the environment I found myself in, yet I ignored the warnings and ended up staying about three years longer before I mustered the courage to do something else. I had many excuses for this prolonged departure, but I think a big unspoken reason was how intertwined my identity had become with the profession. The hold-up certainly made it even more difficult to recover mentally and untangle the self from the career.

Paul Millerd wrote about reinventing himself in a book called Pathless Path. I enjoyed it greatly, partly because I found so many parallels to my own experiences.

False dualism

It seems to me the Western thought I have been immersed in since childhood has a false dualism between intuition and intellect, emotion and rationality. The body and the mind are not separate, Descartes had it wrong.

Neuroscience seems to support that stance.

Investing is another field where this kind of thinking could be helpful, as expressed by Warren Buffett here:

Interestingly enough, although I consider myself to be primarily in the quantitative school, the really sensational ideas I have had over the years have been heavily weighted toward the qualitative side where I have had a “high-probability insight”. This is what causes the cash register to really sing.

Buffett Partnership Letter, October 9, 1967.

Another example of a person embracing this kind of approach even more fully with great success is Arnold Van Den Berg, a Holocaust survivor who taught himself to invest and has successfully managed money for almost half a century.

Yet intuition can also go wrong, turning into prejudice or false assumptions. People are flawed, everyone has cognitive biases.

Questions, prompts and problems

A famous awareness test about counting basketball passes for players wearing white is a good way to delve into this point. It’s a really short one and you can conduct that experiment yourself by watching the video below, then continue reading.

Spoilers about the video follow.

Final warning, you should really check out the video if you haven’t seen it.

The experiment found that most people, some 70%, never see the person dressed in a gorilla suit walking slowly across the screen. When they watch the clip a second time, they are baffled by the fact that they missed something so obvious.

This has been interpreted by the study’s authors and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman that people are “blind to the obvious”, fueling excitement about artificial intelligence and its capacities to improve error-prone human judgment.

Teppo Felin, a professor of strategy at the University of Oxford, has a counterargument, which you can read in full here or hear as a brilliant discussion with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. To summarize it briefly, there’s nothing like obviousness. What’s obvious depends on how we’re attuned to the world.

The findings of the study are not in question, they replicate well. The problem lies with conclusions drawn from this and other experiments tricking intuition, in a way that resembles optical illusions. People don’t ignore the obvious, they respond to questions.

There are many other “obvious” things in the video, such as the clothes of the participants, the color of the carpet, the big ‘S’ letters spray-painted in the background and so on. If there was no prompt to track the passes, the gorilla would become obvious.

We should pay attention to what people are looking for, rather than what people are merely looking at.

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks

Frogs, dragonflies and Super Mario

Felin brings in a viewpoint from biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who argued that all species, humans included, have a unique Suchbild – a search-image, or perhaps a heuristic – of what they’re looking for. There is no neutral observation.

A frog could look at a cricket that’s completely stationary in front of it and starve to death, because its theory of food includes movement. It might not notice the cricket at all, yet it has evolved and survived this way.

A similar thing with Nintendo, which has found staying power and creativity in combining different mature technologies, in a product-development philosophy called “lateral thinking with withered technology”. An old LCD calculator became Game Boy, one of the best-selling game consoles of all time.

Cutting-edge innovation without cutting-edge technology, just a new kind of combination of things. We wouldn’t call the majority of the world who didn’t develop the Game Boy “blind”.

Umwelt is a related concept, the context of existence that varies across individuals and species. Dragonflies see dragonfly stuff. It’s clear that our brains, too, are able to consciously detect and pay attention to a vanishingly small fraction of the surrounding reality.

The world is full of data and there’s no ex-ante sense of what exactly is important. Data is only as good as the questions we ask of it. Machine learning is really good at finding patterns, yet it failed to contribute in any meaningful way to the complex political problem of the global Covid response.

The goal is not to ditch reason, but to boost subtle intuitions we don’t fully understand yet. Follow intuition on what seems promising, conduct a sanity check to see if it makes any sense at all, then leave the decision-making to intuition.

More on these kinds of cognitive patterns in the next piece.

CC BY-NC 4.0 Kasper Viita