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Weekly Blog #29 - Expert Intuition...

During my professional career I've always considered myself to have a good feeling or "intuition" regarding the needs and requirements of my clients. Recently learning that most of it was due to effects and skills other than what I had considered "expert intuition" made me curious about what intuition actually is, how we can develop "expert intuition" and why one needs to be careful not to overemphasize on his expertise and confidence in a specific field.


Knowing without knowing how you know...

Firstly I came to understand that real expert intuition can only be developed by learning through repetition and the subsequent development of certain patterns in our memory. Sounds weird, doesn't it?

There are a few examples that explain this specific requirement of thorough expert intuition quite well. One of the more famous ones is the example of a firefighter that felt a sudden urge to leave a burning building "through intuition" - or more precisely: by automatically and intuitively recalling patterns from his memory that he has developed through repetition, in this case regular training, and that tell him to "get the hell outta here" - just before the building collapsed.

A second requirement to develop "expert intuition" is that the our actions require immediate feedback to develop the above mentioned patterns. One example is learning how to drive a car. We know how hard or how soft we have to hit the breaks before we reach a sharp turn. However, starting in driving school we most probably weren't exactly capable of hitting the sweet-spot. But since breaking a car and turning will result in instant feedback (too fast? too slow? just right?) we are soon able to learn and develop the correct pattern and store it in our memory.

The third factor that has to be taken into account is that we can only develop reliable expert intuition if the circumstances in which we are required to follow intuition are not too complex. Here's an example: it is unreasonable for any stock broker in the world to call upon his "expert intuition" when making a buy or sell decision. The stock market is far too complicated and the circumstances change way too fast and too often to show and develop any reliable patterns.

As a consequence of that we can state the following three things. Our Intuition is more often right, if ...

  1. The environment is unchanging or slow to change. Complex adaptive systems are poor places to develop intuition.

  2. We have a large sample size. That is, we get a lot of practice.

  3. We receive immediate and accurate feedback.

So all we need is an unchanging environment, lots of practice, and immediate feedback. Simple but not easy. If any of those things are not true, we should rely less on our subconscious gut and more on our rational brain.

Intuition equals recognition...

This connects with something Herbert Simon, a Nobel laureate, wrote on expertness and intuition:

"We have seen that a major component of expertise is the ability to recognize a very large number of specific relevant cues when they are present in any situation, and then to retrieve from memory information about what to do when those particular cues are noticed.

Because of this knowledge and recognition capability, experts can respond to new situations very rapidly - and usually with considerable accuracy. Of course, on further thought, the initial reaction may not be the correct one, but it is correct in a substantial number of cases and is rarely irrelevant.

Chess grand-masters, looking at the chessboard, will generally form a hypothesis about the best move within five seconds, and in four out of five cases, this initial hypothesis will be the move they ultimately prefer. Moreover, it can be shown that this ability accounts for a very large proportion of their chess skill. For, if required to play very rapidly, the grand-master may not maintain a grand-master level of play but will almost always maintain a master level, even though in rapid play there is time for almost nothing but to react to the first cues that are noticed on the board.

We usually use the word “intuition” - sometimes also “judgment” or even “creativity” - to refer to this ability of experts to respond to situations in their domains of expertise almost instantaneously and relatively accurately.

The decision maker of experience has at his disposal a checklist of things to watch out for before finally accepting a decision. A large part of the difference between the experienced decision maker and the novice in these situations is not any particular intangible like “judgement” or “intuition". If one could open the lid, so to speak, and see what was in the head of the experienced decision-maker, one would find that he had at his disposal repertoires of possible actions; that he had checklists of things to think about before he acted; and that he had mechanisms in his mind to evoke these, and bring these to his conscious attention when the situations for decisions arose."

Relying on the base rate...

What other options do we have to make good decisions if we are not chess grand-masters, fire fighters or other experts that follow recurring patterns and situations from which to built expert intuition and since it's so clear that our intuition is only a "good guess" and statistically wrong most of the time?

A good and thorough approach in business (and sometimes outside of business) is to rely on what is called the base rate of an event or circumstance. Here's a very simple example for judgements based on the base rate: if we would have to guess the size of a woman in New York, we'd be better off not relying on our gut feeling but finding out the average height of women in New York. This would be the safe bet. However, following this advice is difficult and requires a lot of practice since relying on the base rate is counter intuitive for most of us who do not work with statistics on a regular basis.

In addition to considering the base rate, we can also develop and use simple formulas to calculate the potential outcome. If someone asks you to estimate the happiness in a couples marriage you can look at two people and trust your gut feeling to make a judgement - or you can use a brief formula: the amount of sexual intercourse subtracted by the amount of quarrels... These simple formulas are statistically more often correct than our own intuition and even though they seem very simplistic at times they can provide us with something better than our own gut feeling.

Taking intuition into consideration...

Even though I've just said that it's better not to rely on intuition too much when the stakes are high, there is a good amount of "conditioning" going on in our lives that help us to rely on our intuition in every day decision making.

For example, we might remember a good restaurant because we had a great dish there and associate other, similar restaurants in the same positive way because of it, which might make the decision on whether or not we want to eat there easier. We also might clench or get a bad feeling every time we hear certain phrases or pass certain locations - even without being able to explain why or remember what caused this feeling in the first place - since we associate bad memories with them and our subconscious mind is trying to warn and protect us from going through these bad experiences again.

These patterns are called "learned hope" and "learned fear" and they are usually learned quite easily. Sometimes we don't even need to live through a bad experience to develop fear, words can be enough. Remember the fire fighter: even without ever being in a situation as described above, he could've easily developed an "intuition" for a dangerous situation and the patterns of how to react by learning about certain characteristics of these dangerous situations during his training. In such cases little repetition is needed for learning.

Judging expert intuition...

To conclude this article, I would like to share a passage from Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" regarding how to judge your own or someone else's expert intuition. Here are a couple of questions to ask in order to do so:

"How much expertise do I have in this particular task?" - "How much practices have I had?"

- "Do I believe that the environment of ... is sufficiently regular to justify an intuition that goes against the base rate?" - "How confident do I feel? If I feel too confident, maybe I should delay my intuition, check the base rates and consider more data/information before making a final decision." - "Did I really have an opportunity to learn? How quick and how clear was the feedback I received on my judgements?"


If you're interested in further information regarding how our brain works, Daniel Kahneman's book called "Thinking, Fast and Slow" could be a great source (Amazon Affiliate Link:

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