Psychology Today, October 30, 2016
David Ludden, PhD – Talking Apes
We need both to make the best decisions.
Last Monday, I engaged in a public conversation with comedienne Ilana Glazer on the topic of “Intuition” at the Rubin Museum in New York City. For 45 minutes, we discussed the role of intuition on stage and in everyday life. Afterward came the Q&A session. Although the audience tossed a number of thought-provoking questions our way, one stands out—perhaps because I’m not satisfied with the response I gave at the time.
One of the themes that came out in the discussion was the need to find a balance between intuitive and analytical thinking. (This is a position I argued in my blog post “Are You an Intuitive or Analytical Thinker?”) Our intuitions have been finely honed over evolutionary history for making quick decisions in the social realm. Within seconds, we know whether we like some or not, whether we trust them or not. We’re also remarkably good at predicting each other’s behavior in the moment.
Beyond the social realm, however, our intuitions often lead us astray—and often in predictable ways. And that’s where analytical thinking becomes important. Even if our rapid-response intuitive system is wrong, our slower, more effortful analytical system can bring us to the best decision.
And so we come to the question from the audience: “If you could only have one mode of thinking in your life—intuitive or analytical—which would you choose?”
I, the analytical scientist, quickly responded: “Of course you need both.”
But Ilana, the intuitive actress, was willing to play along with the hypothetical situation. Of course she chose intuition, as she couldn’t engage in her profession without it.
And I agreed it was the best choice in her situation. I also added that most people lead their lives solely on the basis of their intuitions, sometimes doing well and sometimes making disastrous choices. But then I said something that I now regret.
“If we were living on the savannahs of Africa engaged in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, all we would need is our intuitions to guide us,” I said. “But our modern society is so far removed from the environment we are adapted for that we can no longer depend on intuition alone.”
It’s true that we live today in an environment vastly different from that in which we evolved. And this fact accounts in large part for why our intuitions so often lead us astray in modern life. That is, our intuitions are evolved for a stone-age hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
But that doesn’t mean analytical thinking is a modern invention. Quite to the contrary, hunter-gatherers display remarkable feats of analytical thinking. As Louis Liebenberg describes in his 2013 book The Origin of Science, persistence hunters in the Kalahari Desert engage in a process remarkably similar to the scientific method when stalking their prey.
Persistence hunting is done without any projectile weapons. Instead, you run your prey to exhaustion and then finish it off with a knife. You see, four-legged animals can run fast but only for short distances, whereas humans run slow but can continue at that pace for hours.
Persistence hunters spot a likely prey, say a wounded gazelle, and chase after it. Of course the gazelle quickly leaps out of sight, but it leaves behind a trail of footprints. Furthermore, persistence hunters put themselves inside the mind of their prey and ask: “If I were being chased by humans, where would I go?” The team gathers data, debating and evaluating it, before heading off in the likely direction at a leisurely jog. When they find their prey cooling off under the shade of a tree, they once again take chase. This process is repeated until the animal collapses of heat exhaustion. Then all you have to do is slit its throat and carry it home.
The whole point is that even our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on both intuitive and analytical reasoning. In the social realm, the fast thinking of intuition serves us quite well. But when it comes to important decisions outside that realm, intuitions will lead us astray and only a slow analytical process will lead us to good decisions. This is the lesson we need to take from our hunter-gatherer cousins, who presumably maintain the lifestyle of our ancestors.
This brings us back to the question of which is more important, intuitive or analytical thinking. In the Star Trek universe, the Vulcans have no emotions and are totally rational creatures. Yet if this were truly the case, Mr. Spock wouldn’t be able to order lunch in the ship’s galley, let alone interact successfully with his crewmates, because our day-to-day social decisions have no rational solution and we have only our intuitions to guide us.
On the other hand, the craziness of the current election season shows us only too clearly the lows to which we humans can sink when we chuck rational thought out the window and rely solely on our intuitions. I can hear our hunter-gatherer ancestors calling from their graves: “Take the time to think analytically, would you?”
Liebenberg, L. (2013). The origin of science: On the evolutionary roots of science and its implications for self-education and citizen science. Capetown, South Africa: CyberTracker.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).