How much should you trust your intuitions? The answer to the question depends on your level of expertise with the area in which you have intuitions. If you cook with a certain pan on a stove every day, then you are probably pretty good with trusting your intuition for where the temperature should be set, how long the thing you are cooking will need, and where the hottest spots on the pan will be. If you are generally unfamiliar with cars, then you probably shouldn’t trust your intuition about whether or not a certain used car is the right car to purchase. In other words, you should trust your instincts in things you are deeply familiar with and in areas where you are an expert. In areas where you are not an expert and where you only have a handful of experiences, you should consider yourself to be overconfident if you think you have strong intuitions about the situation.
Daniel Kahneman demonstrates this with an example of a math problem in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Most of us don’t solve a lot of written math problems in our head on a daily basis. As a result, we shouldn’t trust the first intuitive answer that comes to mind when we see one. This is the case with the problem that Kahneman uses in his book. It is deliberately designed to have an intuitive easy answer that is incorrect. It helps us see how our overconfidence can feel justified, but still lead us astray.
Kahneman writes, “an observation that will be a recurrent theme of this book: many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.” Intuitions are easy. They come to mind quickly, and following them doesn’t take much conscious effort or thought. The problem, however, is that our intuitions can be wildly wrong. Sometimes they may help us reach an answer quickly, and if we are an expert they can even be life saving, but in many cases our intuitions can be problematic. If we don’t ever think through our intuitions, we won’t actually realize how often we act on them, and how our overconfidence can lead to poor outcomes.
This doesn’t mean that we have to pull out a note pad and calculator every time we make a decision. Instead, it means we should pause momentarily to ask ourselves if our immediate intuition is justified. If we are driving down a freeway that we take every day, and our intuition says change lanes, we can pause for a beat and consider that we drive this way every day, and know that one lane or the other generally slows down a lot and that we will be better off in a different lane. If we have an intuition instead about a complex public policy, we can take a minute to consider whether we truly know anything about the public policy area, and whether we should be more critical of our intuitions. Jumping to conclusions in public policy based solely on intuition can be dangerous. It doesn’t take too much effort or time to think about whether our intuition can be trusted or whether we are overconfident, but it can have a big impact for how we relate to the world and whether we trust the voice in our own head, or the voice of experts.