Sunday, February 08, 2009

Thinking with the gut or the head

I wrote a longish reply to a comment on this. Since I summarized various other things in that comment, perhaps it will be useful to elevate it to a separate post, so here it is, with minor enhancements:

This strongly echoes an article from mid-2006 in The Guardian, by Johnjoe McFadden. He's at least a reputable molecular biologist and cognitive theoretician.

This is actually a very deep and interesting issue. There are (at least) two sides to it, and a whole lot of oversimplifications.

McFadden makes some good points in his article that you cite. However, I bridle at his subtitle: "The evidence seems to be that the conscious mind isn't much use in making hard decisions".

We have all seen the chaos that results when too many people go with their "intuition" to make hard decisions. Out of that "stupidity of crowds" we get results like the financial catastrophe that we are in the middle of. We also get the election of very bad public officials, sometimes, when the crowd listens only to the emotional appeals of the candidates.

Another example of bad decisions typically made by "intuition" is in mate choice. About 50% of marriages end in divorce, due to bad judgment regarding long-term compatibility and listening only to the "heart" instead of the "head". And who knows how many of those 50% of marriages that don't end in divorce are actually unhappy for both parties?

Caveat emptor!

There seem to be a lot of "popular" writers these days who produce books appealing to the public's frustration with the difficulty of making rational choices.

An example is Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Another is Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds.

A writer with somewhat more intellectual respectability is Gigerenzer, who's written a number of the books on this subject, including Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious.

One theme in all these writings is that human consciousness isn't really aware of much that's going on in the brain.

I have discussed, with approval, that exact theme myself, here. There is also a very good blog post that links to mine here.

Just yesterday, in another context, I wrote a bit about why we should expect that evolution has made our brains in such a way that leaves a lot of room for unconscious "reasoning". I'll try to work that into a post here when time permits.

And yet, I have to keep coming back to point out the significant problems caused by relying only on "gut feelings". We simply cannot afford to give up on rational thinking in making our most important decisions. It's just too risky.

My opinions on this shouldn't come as a surprise. Just look at the title of this blog.


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