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The Sixth Sense

Valerie Chase

Educating Intuition. Robin M. Hogarth. xii + 335 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2001. $30.

In Educating Intuition, Robin M. Hogarth tackles a fascinating topic that has until now garnered little scientific attention. This ambitious book aims not only to define and explore the strengths and limitations of humans' "sixth sense" but also to discover how it can be improved. A professor of business, Hogarth turns primarily to research in his areas of expertise—psychology and cognitive science—for inspiration.

In an extensive literature review, Hogarth finds intuition's footprints in many conceptual dichotomies familiar to psychologists. Intuition is aligned with—among other things—automatic, tacit and unconscious processing; implicit memory; and procedural knowledge. Hogarth arrives at the following working definition: "The essence of intuition or intuitive responses is that they are reached with little apparent effort, and . . . involve little or no conscious deliberation." By this account, intuition—which does not encompass innate instincts or regulation of autonomic processes such as breathing—is a product of associative learning that occurs outside working memory.

Part of the book is devoted to documenting intuition's virtues. As Hogarth points out, intuition is necessary: Working memory space is a scarce resource that we cannot afford to squander by questioning our every automatic response. Intuition is also adaptive. Thanks to learning over the course of evolution and our individual lifetimes, we have automatic ways of behaving that are generally effective; for instance, we can drive a car competently while planning what to buy at the grocery store. In other words, activities that rely on unconscious thinking consume little attention, leaving the conscious mind free to accomplish other things.

Lest readers conclude that intuition needs no education, the book also reviews a wide range of phenomena suggesting that human thinking does not measure up when viewed from the perspective of logic or probability theory. A well-known example, the "confirmation bias," is illustrated by Anna, a waitress who believes that customers who are well-dressed leave bigger tips than those who are not. When business is too brisk for her to be attentive to everyone, Anna treats better-dressed customers better—and gets better tips from them. The problem is that this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Anna's behavior prevents her from discovering whether it is. Hogarth suggests that this and other thinking biases have their roots in intuitive processes.

For Hogarth, the key to overcoming such biases is recognizing whether one is in a "kind" or "wicked" learning environment. Kind environments are those that give rise to internally consistent and externally valid beliefs—specifically, beliefs that afford relevant feedback and exact a stiff penalty for shoddy cogitation. By this definition, the environment in which weather forecasters work is kind. The occurrence of rain, for example, is unambiguous and independent of human prediction, and an inaccurate rain forecast is therefore obvious and embarrassing. Wicked environments, in contrast, provide irrelevant or incomplete feedback and let sloppy thinkers off scot-free. Anna's environment is wicked in that it does not provide some of the evidence that she needs to test her hypothesis—that is, what would happen if she treated poorly dressed customers well and well-dressed customers badly. The problem, as Hogarth aptly puts it, is that "we cannot learn from something that we cannot see."

The book proposes that, armed with knowledge about what makes an environment kind or wicked, we can educate our intuition by actively selecting the environments in which our passive learning takes place. Specifically, we can uncover what we normally do not see by sharpening our observational abilities or—in cases like Anna's—by changing our behavior and observing the results. Where these strategies cannot be applied, Hogarth suggests using our powers of imagination to simulate conditions that cannot be directly observed or using "circuit breakers" to block intuitions acquired in wicked environments. Thus, educating intuition amounts to deploying our powers of deliberate reasoning to improve or override our intuitive thinking.

Although Educating Intuition does a nice job of organizing diverse literatures around its theme, it has weaknesses as well. One is that, as Hogarth admits, it has not been proved that poor thinking arises from intuition rather than deliberation. Although the psychological literature affords many examples of situations—most of them artificial—in which people's responses to questions deviate from normative prescriptions, there is little direct evidence that intuition alone is the culprit or that nothing but deliberate reasoning could have saved them. In fact, research suggests that people's deliberate efforts to infer experimenters' expectations sometimes cause them to second-guess their own sound judgments, with unflattering results.

Hogarth puts great stock in intuition when physical safety is paramount or time is short. Borrowing a dramatic example from Gary Klein's Sources of Power, he describes the sudden decision of a firefighter to evacuate his crew from a burning building because he sensed something unusual that he could not identify; shortly thereafter, the floor on which they had all been standing gave way. This intuition could have been wrong, but it was based on a large store of firefighting experience. Moreover, wrongly failing to act would have exacted a far higher cost than wrongly acting.

Yet in considering less extreme situations, Hogarth sometimes implies that inaccurate or incomplete beliefs are pernicious in themselves rather than likewise subject to cost-benefit considerations. Tellingly, he considers learning environments to be wicked if they do not punish inaccuracy, but from a cost-benefit viewpoint such environments are actually kind. What price does Anna pay for not testing her hypothesis more thoroughly? Admittedly, how people dress may have nothing to do with how they tip, or less well-dressed people may tip better. But only in the second case would Anna get smaller tips, and—perhaps based on background knowledge or observations made when the restaurant is less busy—she may reasonably deem this possibility negligible. Hogarth would have done better to explore the social costs of such reasoning (such as how it can perpetuate unfair discrimination) in more depth while acknowledging its general efficacy from the individual's standpoint.

According to the preface, the book is written for an educated general audience. Unfortunately, Hogarth sometimes mistakes vagueness for accessibility, which keeps him from fleshing out his ideas. The exposition would have profited greatly from more fully developed examples—especially in the presentation of the seven guidelines for educating intuition, most of which are formulated too generally to be useful. And some knowledgeable readers may be irked by the idiosyncratic literature review and a few garbled passages dealing with subjects (such as evolutionary theory) that lie outside the author's primary areas of expertise.

Educating Intuition effectively highlights when and how intuition can lead us astray. But it falls short of the goal that sets it apart from many books of this genre: to translate scientific understanding of intuition into practical advice on how to improve thinking. At one point, Hogarth assures readers that subjecting intuition to scientific scrutiny will not diminish its power or mystery. Fortunately for those who prefer to remain in awe of intuition, this book—despite its merits—leaves intuition nearly as mysterious as ever.— Valerie M. Chase, Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, New York City

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