“Intuitive predictions are almost completely insensitive to the actual predictive quality of the evidence,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow. A lot of our thinking takes place in the part of our brain which is good at making quick connections, quickly detecting patterns, and making fast judgments. The deeper and more thoughtful part of our brain only engages with the world when it really needs to, when we really need to do some critical thinking to sort out a math problem, write a blog post, or figure out how to grind down some grains to make bread. The result is that a lot of our thinking processes happen at a quick and intuitive level that is subject to biases and assumptions based on incomplete information. When we do finally turn our critical thinking brain to a problem, it is only operating with a limited set of information from the quick part of our brain which scanned the environment and grabbed the information which stood out.
When we make a prediction without sitting down and doing some math or weighing the factors that influence our prediction with pen and paper, our predictions will seem logical, but will miss critical information. We will make connections between ideas and experiences that might not be very reflective of the actual world. We will simplify the prediction by answering easy questions and substituting answers for the more difficult question that our prediction is trying to answer.
This year, as in 2016, we will see this in action. In 2016, for me and many of the people I know, it seemed as though very few people supported Donald Trump for president. I saw very few bumper stickers or yard signs for Trump, all the social media posts I saw highlighted his worst moments, and the news coverage I consumed described why he was unfit to be president. Naturally enough, I believed he would lose in a landslide. Of course, that did not happen. Intuitively I was sure that Clinton would win, and Kahneman’s research helps explain why I should have been more skeptical of my natural intuition.
Part of the problem was that my intuitive prediction was an exercise of intensity matching, and as Kahneman writes, “Intensity matching yields predictions that are as extreme as the evidence on which they are based.” All the information I saw highlighted how terrible Trump was. I didn’t see a lot of people supporting trump, I didn’t see news stories justifying his candidacy. I didn’t see people in my immediate environment who strongly supported him, so my intuition was biased. It didn’t help that I didn’t do anything to seek out people who did support him or information outlets that posted articles or stories in support of him.
Kahneman’s writing aligns with my real world experience. His studies of the brain and of our predictive machinery reveals biases and errors in our thinking. Our intuition is based on a limited set of information that the quick part of our brain can put together. When we do engage our deep thinking brain, it can still only operate on that limited information, so even if we do think critically, we are likely to still make mistakes because we can’t see the full picture and biases in the information we absorb will predictably shape the direction of our miscalculations. What might feel natural and obvious to us could be a result of faulty intensity matching and random chance in the environment around us.