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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?

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David Fetherstonhaugh is a behavioral economist at IDEO.

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