Thursday, 5 November 2009

Distinguishing between intuition and logic

People often confuse intuition with an ability to observe and interpret nuance, or with certain forms of logic.

True intuition is knowledge or emotion which comes to us out of the blue for which we have no explanation. I came across a good example in a book which related this event in an interview with a Maori woman: suddenly she jumped to her feet exclaiming "George has fallen off his horse and broken his leg!" which it transpired he had. George was her son. At that time he was a considerable distance away on the other side of the family farm. There was no way she could have known what she did except through intuition. In another example, I read that Prince William became disturbed the night his mother, Princess Diana, died, before he knew what had happened. Sometimes we get a strong impulse to do, or not to do something, which we can't account for, but which can have important consequences; in other words, we sense something we can't explain.

Logic, on the other hand, could be described as the application of knowledge in determining possibilities or consequences: if this, then that, kind of thing.

The more common form of what passes for intuition is an ability to observe nuance coupled with the ability to interpret it. This facility can make us seem intuitive when what we are actually doing is 'reading' a situation: we may notice our companion's complexion change slightly as we are talking to them, or pick up on body language, and sense discomfort, for example. We may not even be aware we are doing so, yet we 'know' certain things that haven't been conveyed in the usual way. Quite a bit of logic comes into play in this process, and the conclusions we reach may be correct or completely wrong, depending on our skill at both observing and applying what we know.

I think we need all this: I see intuition and logic as being like two paddles one on each end of a doubled-ended oar with us in the canoe using first one then the other to make our way forward. They work best if we take both into account. To use one to the exclusion of the other is less likely to be satisfactory.

I saw this in action recently in an episode of "Who wants to be a classic millionaire", the British version. It's a quiz show, in which the contestant must pick the one correct answer from a selection of four possible answers. Those of you who know this show would hear Chris Tarrant's voice intoning that description behind mine! Each time the contestant answers correctly their prize money doubles. There's a lot of money at stake, and considerable entertainment can be derived from observing what individuals do when subjected to the pressure of possibly gaining - or losing, huge amounts of money. In the instance I'm thinking of a mild-mannered middle aged man was doing very well, until he got stumped by a question the answer to which would take him from £16,000 either up to winnings of £32,000 if he guessed correctly, or crashing down to £1,000 if he was wrong. Having eliminated two possibilities he was left with two to choose from. He had no idea which was which. After much dithering, he made his choice. Chris asked why. He said he had a definite feeling that it was the right answer and that ...the spirits were talking to him. Chris gave him a number of opportunities to reconsider but he stuck to his choice with increasing certainty. "Final answer?" "Final answer!" Unfortunately it was the wrong answer... He took it with good grace, but it must have been a nasty blow. Logic was completely disregarded! I wondered what went through his mind afterwards. Relying on the voices of the spirits can be a very chancy business - who knows who they are, what vested interests they may have or if their 'presence' is simply a figment of the imagination. If taking a shot at the unknown, it would be better by far to take it simply as a one in two chance rather than imagining that some intangible being is taking responsibility - for being right, especially when large sums of money are involved!

This is a big topic which I can't hope to fully discuss in this short entry.

I want to make one further point before closing here for the meantime: this relates to the use of the term 'intuitive' in relation to some computer programmes. These are based entirely on logic, which is well enough organised and that the users choices made so easy that it suggests that intuition is involved - when according to my definition it isn't. If you disagree with this the best I can say is that if you're reading something I've written elsewhere and find yourself unaccountably agreeing with me, then it must mean I've written it particularly well, and used very clever and subtle forms of logic! There!


Grace Dalley said...

Yes it's rather sad that you can score worse in a multi-choice test when you don't know enough, than if your choices were purely random! This is how that parrot did better choosing stocks and shares than most of the human participants, who *thought* they knew!

Anonymous said...

Indeed! It's either that or parrots, being demonstrably better at handling big financial responsibilities than humans, should rule the economy! Random choices can be brilliant in their own way of course.