Friday, September 30, 2011

Intuition is fed by data.

This post is for my friend Rees, who's  FB wall was beginning to burst with our comments. I've moved the conversation here to save his friends from the excessive verbiage.

In order to save the poor people who originally made comments on that post, I'll respond here.

I think there are two side to the question of how intuition is fed by data. The side which you're focusing on deals with constantly pressing the data for more answers. You're taking information and looking for as many different possible questions which can be applied to it. For example, say you were looking at a list of suicide rates by nation. One way to look at the data is to ask yourself questions like, "Why does Lithuania place first?" "Does Japan rank high because of cultural views on suicide?" "Why do so many Muslim countries fall lower on the list than Christian countries?"

These sorts of questions are great for coming up with research questions. But that's about as far as you can take it. Notice, however, that these speculative questions all rely to some extent on the intuition you already have about social dynamics. In the same breath that you're asking the question you are also formulating a speculation as to the answer. That is one way that data feeds intuition.

Another side to my notion that intuition thrives from data comes from an experimental viewpoint. Whether you're doing longitudinal studies or controlled experiments, the whole point of science is to come up with a question and then choose the observational method that will best answer it. You use a great deal of specificity at this level. You give everything a definition, and you ask discrete questions. For example, you might ask the question, "Does changes in political leadership have an effect on suicide rates?" Then you look for not one data set, but two. You take the historical documentation of the two questions and begin looking for statistical correlations. If you find a result, maybe that every time a country goes through a significant political shift (note: you have to operationalize both the terms 'significant' and 'political shift') then the suicide rate increases, you have found a correlation. That is not the same thing as finding a cause. But you've narrowed your search a little bit. In that way you have fed your intuition at least by now begin able to say, "Well, I don't know what's causing it, but I see that these two things tend to happen at the same time." That's more than you knew before, and it guides your later questions.

I should make it clear that I made up those results. I have no idea if political upheaval has anything to do with suicide rates. My intuition tells me that the two are unrelated. That doesn't mean much, but it's ok to talk about what I think might happen or what might be behind something.

My guess is that your intuition is already well-developed, but that you're just out of practice noticing it. There's nothing wrong with looking at things from different angles. But your intuition shouldn't be something you hide from yourself, or from anyone else. There's a risk of becoming blind to your own bias.


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  3. Can you better define/explain "There's a risk of becoming blind to your own bias." in regards to hiding intuition from yourself or others? Wouldn't being blind to your own bias be more like using your intuition blindly?

    You've written a good description of the difference between the two methodologies and why the second would be more likely to find conclusive or useful questions to ask (I guess). But wouldn't the second method also fueled by your intuition on social sciences? Maybe not as directly but it seems there would still be an influence.

    To take this to the more specific level of why I asked and have so many questions on this let me explain my trouble. You're right by the way I am taking the data and trying to press it for more answers.

    When I'm researching a product or trying to make a momentous (or not) decision I start considering the different possibilities as I keep turning the situation around and around and around I find myself trapped by the data and different indication's of possible choices. Frequently these leads me to a point where a choice that would take someone else an hour to make I'll spend the entire night on in to the wee hours. I kick myself in the butt the next morning for not just getting a little information and making a fairly informed decision rather than exhausting every scenario. Unfortunately I also know that if I make a decision that I later find was a poor choice that I will never get over the regret I have and each time I deal with the effects of the choice I will get angry at myself.

    To bring it back to intuition, regardless of the intuitions I might have I tend to ignore or perhaps not even to notice them and instead just start "pressing the data for answers".

    Does that make sense?

    (I don't know why I can't post as my google name but oh well.)

  4. It does make sense, and I know exactly what you're talking about. Can I buy you a book, Reese/Rhys/Rees/Dale? ;) What's your address? Seriously.

    What you're talking about falls outside of the realm of scientific inquiry and starts to border on psychopathology. OK, maybe it's not that bad, but you should definitely have it looked at.

    What you're doing is called maximizing. This is where you have to look at every possible alternative before you make a decision because you just know you couldn't live with the regret of having not made a better deal or selected a more rewarding option. The problem is that you spend so much time fretting over the options and worrying about the potential losses that you can't possibly earn back that time and energy you've spent in rumination. No choice will ever be good enough to justify the energy you put into making the decision, if in fact a decision even gets made.

    There is an art to making choices, and it's one that can be learned. It's called satisficing, as coined by Herbert Simon, one of the only two Nobel winning psychologists. (This guy was bad ass. Look him up.) Anyway, Wikipedia has a nice entry on what satisficing is, and I would recommend you read that rather than let me mangle it for you. The book I want to get for you is another approach altogether, but it's one I think you'll enjoy.

    As for "being blind to your own bias," what I mean is that if you aren't aware of your own intuitions then they'll tend to creep out in other ways...usually as non-conscious tendencies to support your own opinion even in the face of contrary evidence.

    For example, we can talk about how the GameCube (NOT Wii) version of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is the best video game ever. That's not because I think so, but because it's a fact. There's nothing you can say that will convince me otherwise, because I'm not talking about an opinion, I'm just telling you how it is. There are loads of studies that will show you what I mean.

    These are the kinds of phrases you'll hear people use when they're being intellectually dishonest with themselves about what they want to believe. They confuse their expectations with reality and forgo any further self-reflection. This is what I mean about the risk of becoming blind to your own bias if you don't know your intuitions. Maybe intuitions isn't the best word for it. I should probably just stick with 'opinions' instead, but for this discussion, that words really are interchangeable.

  5. I'll check out satisficing. Maximizing is a good description for the process I tend to fall in. I'd love to check out the book you're talking about. I'll email you my address.


So what do you think?