Monthly Archives: January 2017

Which Is More Important: Intuitive or Analytical Thinking?

Psychology Today, October 30, 2016

david-ludden

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?”

Reference

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).

In the past we knew how to run for our livelihood

Business Day – 8 NOVEMBER 2016 – by SHAUN SMILLIE 

business-day-article

Louis Liebenberg tracker Karel Benadie (Rolex/Eric Vandeville)

In the midday heat of the central Kalahari, Louis Liebenberg found himself taking part in the final days of a tradition dating back 2-million years. The anthropologist was near a place called Lone Tree, tracking a healthy kudu with a band of San Bushmen, when the decision was made to run the animal down.

Initially, Liebenberg was told to go back to camp as chasing game in 40°C plus heat bought with it the dangers of heat stroke. But the academic convinced them to let him tag along — a decision that nearly cost him his life.

For the next couple of hours, Liebenberg watched as the San tracked the animal at a run, as the hunt developed into a tussle between the fleet-footed kudu and the hunters with the advantage of a far more efficient cooling system.

Every time they caught up with the animal, it would run off. But the kudu’s exhaustion and heat stress began to show in its tracks — it was kicking up more sand and its stride was shortening. It tried to seek shade in
the thickets.

One of the hunters, !Nate, got close enough to the kudu to easily kill it with the thrust of a spear. But he gave up on his quarry when he realised that the academic they had reluctantly invited on the hunt was showing signs of heat stroke. Liebenberg had to be helped back to camp.

The anthropologist had become one of the few outsiders to experience what has since been known as a persistence hunt. What he observed convinced him that humans had probably evolved the feat of endurance running over 2-million years to chase down game.

Understanding that humans are running beings allows scientists to reassess the capability of all humans.

Liebenberg asked the San why, after years of extensive study, no one knew about persistence hunts. They replied that no academic had ever bothered to ask. People only wanted to know about their bows and arrows, they said.

The San, Liebenberg explains, are able to carry out the hunts because of a unique set of adaptations that gave them the edge over the kudu. Besides being able to sweat more than any other species, they are hairless, have long limbs and have a very energy-efficient run.

Man is so efficient in this discipline, that humans have been known to outrun horses over long distances. But the problem, says Prof Dan Lieberman of Harvard University, is that increasingly sedentary lifestyles are masking this talent.

“We are now learning how much we get into trouble by avoiding this kind of activity,” he explains. “Not running [or doing its modern equivalent in the gym] increases the rate at which we age, and causes us to get sick from a wide range of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, Alzheimer’s and more.”

The new frontier in understanding endurance running is examining the effects it has on the brain. It is already well known that running helps in combating depression.

But human brains might have been given a far more important evolutionary nudge from running and hunting, Liebenberg believes. Cognitive thinking, he suspects, has its origins in persistence hunting.

There are two theories about why humans developed the ability to run. One is that they had to travel quickly over long distances to get to predator kill sites so they could scavenge meat before other carnivores arrived. The other theory is that they developed it to hunt.

“The ability to speculate, with its creative hypothetico-deductive reasoning are the origins of scientific theory,” says Liebenberg.

But scientists believe that there are other psychological adaptations, that emerged back when human ancestors were learning to run. One of these is the holy grail of sports performance — a bubble of super concentration that is usually seen when competitors are facing life-threatening conditions.

It is known as the flow, a trance-like state in which athletes are totally focused. Sport scientist Prof Tim Noakes says the flow is seen among downhill skiers, and surfers who take on monster killer waves.

“It is a case of, if they are not in the flow, they will die.”

Noakes says athletes in other disciplines are tapping into the flow. He believes that Wayde van Niekerk was in the flow when he won gold in the 400m race at the Rio Olympics.

“When he finished that race, he didn’t seem to know where he was, he was so focused,” he says. “It might as well be that the flow developed back when we were hunting.”

Liebenberg’s persistence hunt more than 25 years ago was probably one of the last. The San who took him on the hunt, are now old and the new generation, plagued by alcohol abuse, prefer using dogs and horses to chase down game.

In other parts of the world, this method of hunting is
rarely practised.

Some Tarahumara Native Americans still hunt deer this way and the Hadza in Tanzania are known to take part in occasional persistence hunts.

“I suspect, however, that within a generation persistence hunting will be gone because of habitat change, regulations and the loss of [tracking] skill,” Liebenberg says.

But the biological and psychological mechanics that enabled these ancient hunts still lie within all humans and experts believe they can still be tapped in the search for a healthier life.