Questioning Your Intuition - The Bipolar Question of the Week

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Do you trust your intuition? Okay, try to solve this little problem:


    A bat and ball costs $1.10 total. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?


    Let your intuition guide you.


    You probably said ten cents, which is wrong. Don’t worry, half of those queried at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the same answer you did. Just to show you how smart these students are, at less selective universities, eight in ten students got it wrong.


    This little puzzle is from Daniel Kahneman’s 2010 “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Dr Kahnemen is a trail-blazing cognitive psychologist who received the 2002 Nobel in Economics. I’m only about a quarter of the way into his book, but in a nutshell: We fall into all kinds of cognitive traps, we base our reality on all sorts of cognitive biases.

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    Dr Kahneman carefully avoids getting bogged down in detailed brain science. Instead, he conceptualizes the brain into “System One” and “System Two.” System One roughly corresponds to the unconscious part of the brain. This is the seat of fight-or-flight and intuition. We become aware of things before our conscious does.


    System Two, which roughly corresponds to our thinking rational brain, is responsible for more sophisticated processing. Typically, System One sends its data to System Two for further analysis.


    Maybe you see what’s coming: As we learn from experience, System One gets pretty reliable at spitting up plausible answers and solutions. System Two starts abdicating responsibility to System One. We justify our laziness by “trusting” our intuition.


    But how truly reliable is our intuition? After all, you just answered ten cents to the ball and bat question. But that would mean your total would come to $1.20, not the $1.10 in the question. See? You have to “think” to come up with the right answer.


    Yes, ten cents “feels” right, but is wrong. Your intuition has tricked you. We get fooled like this all the time.


    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our intuition. Intuition and creativity are linked, and bipolars dominate everyone’s list of creative people. Some of the preliminary brain science suggests that creative people excel in shutting out a lot of the distracting thinking and perceiving parts of their brains when they are in their flow.


    But an over-reliance on our intuition incurs a grave risk of lazy thinking. We fall victim to the pat answer. Often, the wise choice is going with our intuition. Other times, we need to think things through. Knowing when to go with which takes practice. 


    I will leave you with one more question:


    How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the ark? 

Published On: November 18, 2013