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Interview

No innovation without intuition

Julia Graven interviews Psychology Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the University of Potsdam, about the fear of intuition.

»The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.«

Albert Einstein

We are overwhelmed with information. Digital technology makes it possible to gather vast amounts of data from anywhere in the world. Google provides us with encyclopaedic knowledge on the screen of our mobile phones in seconds. But does this make our decisions easier and better? 
Professor Gerd Gigerenzer has his doubts. For him, human instinct is one of the most important aids for decision making. You have to focus on the essentials and ignore superfluous information. For Gigerenzer, this works best when you are knowledgeable in that field. Experiences are an important prerequisite for intuitive action. And in areas where it is not so important, the risk researcher is happy to rely on the help of others when making decisions. For example, the waiter in a restaurant.


As a risk researcher, Gerd Gigerenzer tackles the issue of how we make decisions in an uncertain world. He received wider recognition through his book »Gut Feelings«, which won »Wissenschaftsbuch des Jahres« (Science Book of the Year) and has been translated into 17 languages. The researcher concludes that, ultimately, decisions made rationally rarely make sense.

 © Photo: Arne Sattler

PROFILE: Professor Gigerenzer, can we really rely on our gut feelings in difficult situations?
Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer: We need both – our head and our gut. We should never play one off against the other and we should always be critical of both. Gut feelings can be wrong, but so can your head. 

When is it time to use your head?
When I am able to properly calculate the risks, that's when traditional decision theory comes into play. I can get quite far using probability theory, statistics, facts and big data. When playing roulette, I don't need intuition, as I can calculate how much I will lose in the long term. But in situations with a high degree of uncertainty, like where to build something, who to trust, who to marry, calculations aren't enough.

When should you trust your gut? 
Over the years I have realised that I don't have to weigh up all the risks to find a good solution. Day to day, simple rules can help here. In a nice restaurant, for example, I would ask the waiter what's good on the menu tonight. This often has better results than poring over the menu and weighing up every option in detail. 

In a pub, good food is good enough for me, it doesn't have to be the best. But should an  architect, for example, really be satisfied with the first good solution that comes along? 
If I have learnt one thing from my research, it's how to make decisions faster. I can make decisions particularly quickly in areas where I have a lot of experience. After all, an experienced architect can see at first glance much more than an unskilled person. I would therefore trust an architect's intuition. If he wants to create something truly innovative, that can't happen without intuition. But intuition alone isn't enough. It only gives you the foundation for a thorough analysis. 
And if the analysis shows that the best solution you have found doesn't work, then experienced decision makers  will often opt for the second-best solution.

Is your gut feeling a type of »sixth sense«?
Certainly not! As a general rule, intuition is felt know­ledge. It is the product of many years of experience that can't be articulated. Our brain is constantly performing tasks that we are not aware of or don't think consciously about. Only one part of the brain can be expressed through language, but there is also information hidden among the rest, which gives us intuition.

Can intuition be learned?
Good instincts are based on experience and simple rules of thumb. They can therefore be learned. But it is also important to trust yourself. You need to make yourself aware of intuitive rules. For example, only making an important decision based on the reason that, for you, is the most important and ignoring the other arguments. You can try to do this deliberately in your daily life so that you begin to trust your intuition more.

Can you prove that intuitive decisions are better than a list of pros and cons? 
There are some good examples of where there is a high probability that the first idea or initial feeling of an experienced decision maker will be better than anything that comes after it. If experts don't have much time to deliberate, they often make better decisions. Inexperienced individuals on the other hand need more time. This can be seen particularly clearly when it comes to sport. For a professional golfer, for example, it is better to follow their first instinct. To quote record goal scorer Gerd Müller: »If I think about it, it's way too late.« .

Unfortunately, decisions in large companies or teams are seldom made in the same way as on the football pitch...
Nonetheless, our re­­se­arch shows that in large companies that are listed on the stock exchange, approx. 50% of all the important decisions are made on gut instinct in the end. However, the managers would never admit that publicly, as they are afraid of standing by their gut instincts – and having to bear the responsibility. Instead, they prefer to commission consultants who then use figures to justify and make objective the decisions that were made a long time ago. This safety culture makes decisions drawn-out and expensive – and impedes innovation. For most people cannot know with complete certainty whether a decision is right or not.

Will big data make our intuition superfluous?
On the contrary. In a world where things are changing rapidly, mathematical models that are based on data from the past are failing. If we don't know what tomorrow is going to be like, masses of old data will not help much. We have a tendency to overestimate how much of the future can be calculated. Even when it comes to big data, we sometimes still need good instincts. Instinct means that you sense which information you can rely and concentrate on, and which you should ignore. 

Couldn't artificial intelligence also do this with the right algorithms?
Artificial intelligence works ­best when the rules remain the same. Like with the board games chess or Go. However, these situations are rare in everyday life. Take online dating websites for example. You might be impressed by someone's profile. But when you meet this person in real life, you can often tell after just a few moments whether or not you are a good match. 

So is the »Brave New World« just around the corner?
If we knew what the future held, we would never look forward to anything, be surprised or be disappointed ever again. Everyone would know when they were going to die or if their marriage would end in divorce. In this world of certainty, our emotions would barely have a function any more. If everything was certain, we would need very little of what makes us human. Life would be so boring – just like reading last year's newspaper. 

No innovation without intuition
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