The subtle balance between intuition and rationality

By Martin Vogel

Rodin's The Thinker

Review of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, is a dense read which took me several weeks. But it was highly rewarding – challenging the mental constructs that I bring to coaching but reinforcing my conviction that the economic paradigm that has come to dominate corporate life needs to be supplemented with a more social one.

Insights that I took from the book include the following:

  1. Our minds are much less rational than we tend to believe. But they are more rational than fashionable interpretations of neuroscience might encourage us to admit.
  2. Most of the mind’s work is undertaken by the intuitive, unconscious mind (what Kahneman calls System 1) which leaps to conclusions which seem good enough in the moment. Thus the mind settles for a plausible story over an accurate one. The thinking mind (System 2), which processes things in a rational/logical way, can reach more accurate conclusions. But using this form of thought takes significant expenditure of energy. Since we are lazy, we avoid using System 2 at all costs.
  3. We can train the mind to be intuitively accurate by practising System 2 routines. Thus, chess players are so accomplished at their game that they intuitively calculate optimal chess moves on which less accomplished players would need to expend great mental energy.
  4. The economist’s model of the rational agent does not exist in the real world (Kahneman won the Nobel Economics Prize for demonstrating this). Human’s are liable to make choices that are not economically optimal – for example, they would rather avoid losing something than making a bigger gain. Thus the whole paradigm of free-market capitalism is based on a false prospectus. The market may well be the best way we have of organising economy and society, but it needs to be modulated by an understanding that people do not always act in their best interests and therefore the market cannot be trusted to produce the best results for society.

Kahneman’s work both challenges and reinforces some of the underlying assumptions that I bring to coaching. His deconstruction of the rational agent model reinforces the idea that business leaders need to complement their excessively rational/instrumental paradigm with one that makes greater allowance for the emotional complexity of human beings. In my work, I tend to emphasise the relevance of intuition as a check on this rational/instrumental paradigm. It’s valuable to step back and check in with what your intuition tells you; this is a necessary corrective to the wilful blindness that has led people to make poor ethical choices in recent scandals at Barclays, News International, Parliament and elsewhere.

However, Kahneman’s work on System 1 and System 2 and the fallibility of intuition causes me to recalibrate my inclination to trust intuition. Just as rationality can be fallible, so can intuition and we should not to exaggerate its value. The mind is a dialectic between unconscious intuition and conscious rationality. The greater part is unconscious. But it’s important to nurture both.

While cultivating greater intuitive awareness in particular of the emotional/interpersonal aspects of life can enrich the terrain of rational calculus and promote better choices, it’s necessary also to keep hold of the reality that intuition takes short cuts. Much of the time, intuitive answers are good enough; the trade-offs made by intuition are crucial to enabling us to function effectively in the world. But we must be alert to the occasions when it would be helpful to step back to apply the effortful calculation of System 2. Just as an athlete develops comfort with physical endurance, it would benefit each of us to stretch our comfort with intellectual endurance so that we can expand our range when we need to bring rational calculation to bear on challenging problems.

In daily life, this means opting sometimes for the more intellectually challenging choice – in what we watch on television, the books we read, in reaching for a crossword puzzle or sudoku over less demanding ways to relax.

In coaching, it means striking a balance between intuition and rationality – being alert to which challenge a client needs in the moment. Much of the time, in business coaching, clients will need to be challenged out of their rational comfort zone into greater awareness of intuition. But there will also be opportunities to challenge people to goad their lazy System 2 into work, to apply the potential of their rational calculation more rigorously to the issues with which they are grappling. I can see this applying in relation to complex personal situations. But, even in the most rational/logical terrain of calculation, as Kahneman shows, we can unwittingly reach for the intuitively appealing answer when a bit more mental effort might save us from mistakes.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, available from Amazon.

Image courtesy Elke Sisco.