Distinguishing Expert Intuition from Lay Intuition

This post is a response to “How Might We Leverage Informed Intuition for Decision-making?” Learn more about the conversation here.

My grandfather, a high school driving instructor in Oregon, enjoyed a 42-year-long career behind the wheel entirely accident-free—not a single crash, minor fender-bender, or absent-minded scratch. He taught thousands of students, but sadly, several of them met their fate behind the wheel, failing to see their senior year of high school. Grampa Joe was not an especially cautious person, but he was an incredible driver. Doubtless, the fate of these students influenced his day-to-day driving behavior; or, perhaps in contrast to the rest of us, he enjoyed what one might call expert intuition. And there is a big difference between expert intuition and what we normally call intuition.

What’s your "intuition" when it comes to your intuition? When you ask people to rate their intuitive judgment, they’ll typically give it high marks—hardly surprising. But when you ask them to rate their intuitive judgment compared to others, something very strange occurs. It’s not uncommon for 20 percent of people surveyed to claim that their intuitive prowess ranks in the top 1 percent and for the bottom half of the distribution to become a ghost town. Are you seeing the problem here?

The problem is known as the Blind Spot Bias, and it has serious implications for all sorts of decisions we make. Next time you’re driving on a crowded freeway, consider the fact that the vast majority of drivers think they’re better than average drivers—a lot better than average. As a result, they tailgate, change lanes more frequently, and multi-task with presumptive skill. What they’re really doing is taking risks they don’t realize they are taking and collectively causing a countless number of annual traffic deaths. And I’ll avoid elaborating the implications for sexual partners who consider themselves particularly skilled at withdrawal method of birth control.

What does this all mean? It means that our beliefs about intuition often get us into trouble. What about lay intuition itself? Unfortunately, that’s a bit of a sordid story too. Check out Daniel Kahneman’s excellent overview of intuitive judgment in his Nobel prize acceptance lecture.

What’s most relevant for social impact work and its evaluation is the special class of judgment and decision-making that stems from expert intuition: cardiologists who can reliably determine degree of arterial blockage with only a stethoscope; marriage counselors who can with uncanny precision predict future divorce by listening to a couple talk for five minutes; Secret Service agents who can accurately detect liars at every level of experience and sophistication; and, of course, my Grampa Joe.

What can we learn from these folks that we can leverage in social impact work? The answer usually won’t come from asking them. Most of the time the intuitive people performing these feats cannot clearly articulate how they do it. To be sure, their abilities are not innate. They can be learned. Below are some of the features that can help sharpen our intuition (also check out IDEO’s Jane Fulton Suri’s article "Informing Our Intuition: Designing Research for Radical Innovation").

Keen observation. Individuals in a constant state of learning can better detect nuances in the relationships between people and their environment. This requires approaching observations with an open mind, and constantly updating perspectives and hypotheses.

Accurate feedback. Feedback during observations is what enables us to compare what we’re measuring to what we expect to find; discrepancies become opportunities to learn and improve. This typically refines our understanding, helps us evaluate key hypotheses, and allows us to recalibrate so we make even better decisions in the next iteration.

Perpetual iteration. Repeated exposure to a given target is a prerequisite for developing expert intuition. Any expert can learn something by conducting a single trial with a sample of 300, but they’ll learn a great deal more by conducting 300 trials with a sample of one. Expert intuition is about honing pattern recognition, which can only be developed through serious iteration.

Notice that these tools are agnostic with respect to methodology. Observation, feedback, and iteration are required for most valid methods of investigation or evaluation. The expert intuition they can produce improves upfront decision making which is important because when there’s little trust in upfront decisions donors tend to over-rely on evaluation.

I think people commonly hear “intuition” as a code word for wanting to avoid quantitative evaluation. In fact, I think those who lean toward qualitative methods are often open to validating their work through quantification, but just not at the expense of constraining the richness of their inquiry.

Continue our conversation by commenting below:
  • What examples have you seen of expert intuition working or not working?

  • How have you integrated expert intuition into qualitative and quantitative evaluation practices?

  • \n

David Fetherstonhaugh is a behavioral economist at IDEO.

via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less