Much of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow is about the breakdowns in our thinking processes, especially regarding the mental shortcuts we use to make decisions. The reality of the world is that there is too much information, too many stimuli, too many things that we could focus on and consider at any given time for us take in everything and make a comprehensive decision. Instead, we rely on short-cuts, use our intuition, and make estimates that help us with our decision-making. Usually we do just fine with this whole process, and that is why we rely so much on these short-cuts, but sometimes, cognitive errors and biases can drive us off a cliff.
However, Kahneman stresses that all is not lost. Our intuition can be very reliable if we develop true expertise in the area where we are putting our intuition to the test. As Kahneman writes, “Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.”
We can make predictions, we can learn to recognize commonalities between situations, and even on a subconscious level we can absorb and recall information to use in decisions. The key to using our intuition successfully is a careful line between mastery and arrogance. It requires self-awareness to know what we know, to understand an area well enough that we can trust our intuition, and to know what we don’t know, so that we don’t make judgments beyond our area of expertise.
While much of Kahneman’s research (the majority of which I’m going to be writing about) is focused on problematic heuristics, predictable cognitive errors, and hidden mental biases, it is important to know when we can trust our intuition and where our thinking doesn’t lead us astray. There are times where developing expertise through practice and experience can help us make better decisions. Even if we are not the expert, we can recognize and learn from those who do have expertise, paying attention when their intuitions forecast something important. Getting a sense for how well the mind can work, and how well humans can think and forecast when they have the right information and knowledge is powerful if we want to think positively about what our future might hold. At the same time, we have to also understand how thinking fast can get us in trouble, and where our expert intuitions may fail us.