When Can You Trust (Expert) Intuition?

I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink when it came out. It's a deeply dissatisfying book. He starts out more or less proposing that intuition, or at least expert intuition, is this kind of superpower, then he starts slipping in anecdotes about how quick decision making fails instead of succeeding, which naturally makes you wait for Gladwell to give you the rule or rules which let you distinguish between the two situations, and then the book's finished. As Steve Sailer paraphrased the message: "Go with your gut reactions, but only when they are right." You're left with a bunch of anecdotes.

I'm currently reading Daniel Kahnemann's Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is - how to put it? - a better book than Blink. In one chapter, he summarizes the results of antagonistic collaboration on the topic of the trustworthiness of expert intuition with a researcher called Gary Klein (Klein trusted expert intuition, Kahnemann didn't). They found that experts need the following to develop trustworthy intuitions (p. 240):
  • an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable
  • an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice
 That may sound a bit obvious (once you know about it), but has a number of interesting implications.

One, this explains why you cannot predict growth or crime rates: the environment's just too darn irregular. Or when the next large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil is to be expected: perhaps they will turn out to be highly regular, but if so, there's been no opportunity to learn that.

Two, these are exactly the conditions under which systematic prediction (say, using a regression model) also works. That is, there seem to be no cases when intuition works, but deliberation cannot. Intuition may be quicker, but it's not some magic pipeline into otherwise inaccessible truths.

Three, this gives you a rule for when to trust your own intuitions. You are probably an expert in something, such as your wife's facial expressions. If they have a stable relationship to your wife's psychological states and you've had ample opportunity to learn about that relationship, your intuitions about what they mean are probably trustworthy. On the other hand, your intuitions about what your newly-acquired lover's facial expressions mean may be off the mark.

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