Intuition, big data, brain and business (6)

P1020484In Holland my book ‘The high speed brain’ appeared in 2015 and has reached the top 10. The book is about ‘intuition, business and the brain’ and the reviews are quite positive. Until now there is no English translation. Some English speaking people asked me if it was possible to do a translation in English.  I hope I managed to do it in understandable English. And I also hope you can see it as a service. This is part 6 (chapter 7 and 8 from the book) . First 5 parts (6 chapters) are to be found on this blog.

Chapter 7. The six illusions of our brain

If you think that your thoughts are right while this is not the case, the chances of bad decisions are strongly present. What Chabris and Simons make clear in their book The Invisible Gorilla is that the much-vaunted intuition in many cases is an illusion. They call Gladwell’s examples exceptions to the rule. What their answers come down to is that you can only say things with certainty if things are examined and proven. Otherwise you are on the level of gambling. With every choice you make is there a chance of x percent that it’s the right choice. That you thought you felt it perfectly in advance has most of the time to do with one of these illusions:

-The illusion of attention

-The illusion of memory

-The illusion of confidence

-The illusion of knowledge

-The illusion of cause

-The illusion of potential

I shall explain what they mean.

The illusion of attention

If we are focused on something, we overlook important things or we don’t see them at all. The same applies to things that we are not looking for. Those we simply don’t see. But in the meantime we are thinking that we notice them. This phenomenon is called the illusion of attention. There is for example the motorcycle accident that someone got because a cardriver was calling with his mobile. The cardriver admitted that he had not noticed the motorcyclist. While the motor drove right in front of him he didn’t see it. Chabris and Simons give more examples of this. Meanwhile we tell investigators that we know for sure that we always would notice them.

The illusion of attention also occurs at the development of products. Your company is working on a product, for example a technical adjustment. You are so focused on this product that you don’t notice what others in the meantime are developing. That makes your product in fact unnecessary. But you are so focused with your attention on your own product that you don’t notice it. And if you would notice it, you would possibly not believe it. You keep believing that your idea will conquer the market. By the time you put it in the market, the idea is totally out of date. This is the fear of every entrepreneur, but it comes up regularly.

If we have focused our attention on something, we overlook a lot of. But if we haven’t focused our attention on something we also overlook things. And in the meantime we are unaware of it. Our brain misleads us here. It pretends that all is ok and that you don’t miss anything. In decision-making that is very very tricky. You have to pay extra attention in those cases.

The illusion of memory

You and I overestimate the accuracy of our memories. We remember sometimes more and sometimes less than we’ve seen. Also the chronology of events is not stored correctly.

Chabris & Simmons give the example of a woman who was raped and recognized her rapist ‘without any doubt’. The man was convicted. Later it appeared from DNA testing that he was not the rapist. But he had been in jail for years.

Our memories are not an exact copy of reality, but a subjective transformation of it. In the meantime we think, however, that they show exactly the event from the past. In other words, we don’t recognize our false memories. I myself have experienced this once when I returned to the house of my youth. I was sure the pond was in front of the house, but it turned out that the pond was at the back of the house.

There it was not a big problem. But in lawsuits about war criminals it is. Sometimes innocent people are recognized as camp executioners. The emotions run very high on. Also in parliamentary reviews people sometimes have particularly unclear memories. But there it has a different background: conscious deception. Anyway: in decision-making it is annoying when memory deceives us. And the chance that this is happening is not insignificant.

The illusion of the confidence

We have confidence in people who radiate self-confidence. That this is based on primitive instincts, doesn’t matter to us. Someone who exudes confidence gives us the illusion that the situation is safe, that things will turn out fine, that control is possible. World leaders are chosen because of there self-confidence. Sometimes in a flash of a tv debate.

In politics but also in companies you will see that confident people often end up high in the organization. Although it is known from research that the positive results of CEO’s usually have nothing to do with the qualities of them, we believe that anyway. There are many examples of CEOs who performed quite well by favorable conditions, and a few years later got bad results in less favourable conditions.

Few CEO’s really influence the result. There are not so many people like Steve Jobs! It’s like soccers: you have a few great players that are distinguishing. Neymar, Ronaldo, Robben and Messi are exceptional. The majority is doing its best and provides a useful contribution, but is replaceable.

If you have self-confidence, it gives you the feeling that you are able to do everything. And also that you’re right in the things that you think. That is what you show to people around you and they are sensitive to this. But Chabris and Simons explain very well reasoned that your self-confidence is no guarantee for correct estimates.

It remains commendable to be critical to hunches and, especially when you have to make decisions. And of course this applies also to the ideas of your team. Self-confidence must have the right proportion to reliability. So all that poise is no guarantee for a good decision. You’d better face that, and make clear to others (and yourself) whether you are knowledgeable in something or not. And expertise doesn’t always mean that you have a degree. Experience can be worth even more.

The illusion of knowledge

This illusion is thinking that you understand things better than you actually do. That makes you feel that you know something while this is not the case. If I ask you if you know how the weather develops, what’s your answer then? If I ask you what is the cause of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, do you really know it? Knowledge illusions give us the feeling that we understand something of politics, of the universe and of the motives of our organizations to change anything. It gives us the idea that we understand why we suddenly feel a pain in our knees, or why the figures were so bad the last few months.

We think that we know things that we don’t know. This happens to us dozens of times a day. And again we can conclude that our brain is misleading us once again. Because what we know doesn’t need to be correct for the brain. Not necessarily. We don’t know it, because we don’t test it.

We doubt to accept knowledge that is true and accept knowledge that is not true. In doing so, we estimate our own assessment higher than we should do according to research results. We’ll even do our best to make clear why the research actually is wrong. I found a good example in my own circle of acquaintances. I have a good friend who likes to eat chocolate eggs and magnums. She also likes dried crust with jam and chocolate sprinkles. She loves sweet things. We all like that. Of course she knows that sugar is not good for us.

Recently a food book was published. This book of the Belgian Kris Verburgh was called ‘The food hourglass’. Verburgh’s book has yielded a lot of resistance in the world of the food industry. He criticizes the use of sugar and dairy products. My good friend has criticized the book from the beginning. Initially with the argument that there are already published many of this kind of books. She had no substantive argument until someone in the newspaper said that Verburgh used an investigation of the walnuts industry to show that walnuts were good for you. This is something like: we from Coca Cola have proven that Coca Cola is the best drink.

All the research Verburgh describes in his book is criticized because of the link with a walnut company. And it is put away for the reason that these sorts of books are selling crap. My good friend had already decided this without having read the book. Whether that’s right or not, this is how the brain works. It pretends that it is very well aware, while it actually doesn’t know anything. This can become a problem when we have to take important decisions. For chocolate eggs and magnums bring us probably more damage than Kris Verburgh’s walnuts.

The concept of cause illusion

People believe in cause and effect. If something happens, we want to know what is causing it. In order to get this clear we need to create an association, a connection between things. The only problem is that the links that we make are not always correct. For our brain that doesn’t matter so much. That is especially sensitive to stories and patterns. If something is correct or not is for the brain too often equally important. That creating connections, making chronological stories and coming up with cause and effect is very pleasant for our amygdala because they give a sense of control. And control and safety is important for our brain, more than correct or not.

We connect the craziest things. ‘That can’t be a coincidence,” a manager recently said to his colleague, when his Department and the Division of his colleague had exactly the same large turnover. He saw it as a sign that things went very well with the company, because ‘something’ interfered. In his perception this was a higher power.

When you and a friend remember to send text messages at the same time, then you find that uncommon, and attribute it to a twist of fate or to telepathy or to a higher power.

How much we like to look for the causes of a problem can be seen in the following newspapers message:

‘Retail in april has turned bad. Compared with the same period last year sales fell with 8.7 percent. Consumers bought less clothing, furniture and do-it-yourself articles. One of the causes was the cold weather, which led to a delay of the sales of summer clothes. Another major cause of the decline in sales was that april this year had less Fridays and Saturdays. Those are the days on which is shopped most often. Yet consumer electronics were sold better. Possible this was because of the European Championship Soccer. In the weeks before a big tournament more televisions are sold. ‘

I’m not saying that it’s all nonsense what the paper says here, but I only notice the human incline to explain everything. We believe to be able to do predictions based on this cause and effect-reasoning, or redirecting a bad business situation.

In this newspaper article, for instance, the cause of the bad sales is declared. Causes of the decline of nearly 10% would be the cold weather and the fact that ‘ april ‘ had less Fridays and Saturdays. Such statements say very little and it is questionable whether they are correct. They seem to have been mentioned to reassure people. It gives us a safe feeling when we know that something nasty isn’t correct, and if it isn’t something regular or structural.

Does cold weather lead in april to the selling of less summer clothes? And are there suddenly less Fridays and Saturdays in April? By Easter? And: if this is the case why is it so important to know this? What do we actually want to say with it? ‘ Don’t worry, we can do anything about it. Soon it will be good again, and April an will get extra Friday and Saturday.’

Creating connections happens just too fast and too easy. When we are using intuition our brain makes faster connections between things and events than we understand. Even before our consciousness is there, things are already formed into an idea, thought or feeling. We tend to like to see events that occurred previously as cause for things that happen later, like in novels. We recognize a credible story as truth. But credibility isn’t the same as truth.

When we feel good about an intuitive hunch this is probably because we have found a credible explanation for something. But this still says nothing. A credible explanation is no guarantee for a good decision and it also doesn’t say that we assess or judge things right.

The illusion of potential

Women can multitask better than men, many newspaper articles told us recently. In the meantime it has been shown that this is not the case, but this doesn’t matter. You can hear the phrase that woman are better multitaskers still everywhere. The phrase promises something about the potential of women. It promises that women have the ability to multitask, while now it has been demonstrated that we are all poor to multitask. Many of such misconceptions circulates. It is claimed that our brains only use 10% of its potential. It is claimed that you will become more intelligent of classical music. That babies get a better brain by watching DVDs about Einstein, Van Gogh and Bach. That hypnosis frees memories that we don’t get without hypnosis. That you can feel it when someone is watching you from behind.

All these things promise the same thing: we have much more potential than we realize. That this is not the case, doesn’t matter to us. We just continue to believe in it. Even if you bring up hundreds of investigations in which the opposite is proven, people believe what they want to believe.

We call this the illusion of the potential. This illusion can also be found in the ideas we have about intuition. People suggest that you can do much more with intuition than with a ‘ rational ‘ approach. You know things faster, you don’t need to look further or investigate things. You have all the knowledge inside you. In the words of Picasso: the pigeon brings a message, but you don’t have to open it. You already know what the content is. But this idea is often an illusion, and so you are fooling yourself and others.

We prefer to ignore research that contradicts our beliefs and illusions. We call it boring, say that not everything needs to be proven and that in life it is not only about the rational and that feeling should be given a more important place.

Feeling and emotion are wonderful things. In the 1990s the Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda emphasized that emotions had a function that we certainly should take seriously. If someone is very angry, then it may seem sometimes a little exaggerated. However, there is probably something reasonable in its absurdity.

But does this mean that research is boring? Research shows you that your experiences and ideas aren’t the absolutely truth. And of course you should also look critically to the way things are investigated. Of course, in Europe we have found some examples of scientific fraud.

You can adapt the research results to your illusions and suspicions. But such fraud cases don’t say anything about the quality of research in general. Because you happen to find for example that telepathy exists doesn’t mean that telepathy is an absolute truth. And if someone doesn’t believe in it, that doesn’t mean that he is a rationalist. Taking decisions on the basis of the illusion of the potential is simply unreliable.

For all these illusions is that they participate ‘in hidden’ if we make a decision. No less than six illusions. So what can we do now since trusting your intuition seems to become an impossibility. Chabris and Simons give three options. Learn to see through your illusions. Their second tip is: improve your overall thinking ability, but realize that you probably won’t get rid of all your illusions. And thirdly: develop better technology. Because we have better reference material when we capture more data. That makes us more humble in the field of wisdom and knowledge.

Chabris and Simons are not the only persons that have discoverd the limitations of our reviews, projections, thoughts and intuitions. Daniel Kahnemann also did it. As we will see in the next chapter, our brain is less focused on correct analyses than on survival and safety. That makes it an extremely volatile and mood sensitive partner when we have to make decisions.


Please correct your ‘bloopers’. Take sometimes 20 minutes after an idea to think about a solution and check afterwards:

  1. If you’ve overlooked things
  2. If your memory is correct. You can do this with others who were also present at the thing where you have a reminder about.
  3. If your confidence is justified, for example because you have experience or are expert in that field.
  4. If you have knowledge about a particular subject on which about you do your statements.
  5. If you haven’t made links that are not proven to be a link.
  6. If something or someone indeed has the potential that you think he has

Chapter 8. Kahnemann: more threats to the accuracy of our intuition

I realize that my solution to the ‘ carelessness ‘ of our brain, our feelings and intuition is a bit boring: check this, check that, choose reflection moments, involve others, etc. Follow your feelings is much more fun of course. Follow your feelings, let go everything, try something and just do something, then you will never be disappointed. Thinking is not the most enjoyable pastime for many people. That will also be evident from this chapter.

But to be ready for the high speed world of the future we need reflection moments and the help of others. I have known very much people in my life who followed their feelings. Some came well spent and could fulfill their dreams. I myself am one of them. But a lot of them came in less favourable circumstances. They followed their intuition and feeling, but they failed.

Hence I definitely want to exploit my intuition, but not without testing it. And indeed it is beautiful, that we need islands of peace and contemplation and also human contact to get things to a successful conclusion. I strongly think that we like to be autonomous, but that we approach the truth (if it exists) better with each other than on our own. Of course sometimes a brilliant mind will know something better than the group, but also that only becomes visible in the context of cooperation and in the conversations with each other. And remember that I don’t say that you must designing everything exactly in advance. I indeed believe in the guiding power of intuition. Brain waves are always worth to evaluate. Also when it comes to the previously discussed limbic noise you will notice that hunches, feelings, ideas and thoughts will give you a great amount of information. So: take up the idea, and then do the checks and controls that I recommend in my tips.

In the previous chapter I revealed that the six illusions of the brain work blurring on the reliability and quality of intuitive decisions. So you can feel that you have taken the correct decision, or you van have the idea that you have is much better than every other one’s, while you simply are wrong and don’t understand you’re mistaken. The feeling that you are right is no guarantee for being right.

Our brain is anything but perfect. And that also applies to our intuition. Intuition and the patterns that we see and recognize by our neuro networks, are patterns that we have learned. Who guarantees that they are always correct? The illusions of Chabris and Simons teach us that they are not. And there is more than their six illusions that gives reason to doubt about our reviews, ideas and intuitions. And for that we consulted Daniel Kahnemann, Nobel Prize winner, psychologist and writer.

According to him we have two ways of reacting if something bad happens to us: an automatic response (System 1) and a reflective response (System 2). Kahnemann discusses the characteristics of these two ways in his book ‘Our fallible thinking’. First about our automatic response. Everyday’s life demands decisions constantly. Small decisions, big decisions. A lot of those decisions are not evaluated, and that’s fine, because otherwise you wouldn’t do anything anymore.

If you are going to a restaurant, you don’t go there to play soccer. You know it. No one needs to tell you that. If you are in a train you know that it is going to bring you somewhere. If someone asks you how much is six plus two, you’ll automatically know that it is eight. You don’t have to think about it. How you make your coffee, how you turn on the television or how you put your ATM card in the ATM machine, that’s all your automatic response. It is good that you have it, because without this system a lot would go wrong in your life.

But your automatic response system also has disadvantages. So it is a good idea to know a little bit about it. Our automatic reaction (system 1 according to Kahnemann) has the following characteristics.

-It is an automatic and fast system, that draws conclusions with little effort. It interprets quickly when it’s perceiving something, it notes what it is and makes an immediate decision.

– The automatic system wants to simplify everything. If a question or event is too difficult, our automatic system simplifies this immediately. It replaces the difficult question by a simpler question. It doesn’t matter if this answer is correct or not. It takes things for granted and doesn’t test them. I have already told you that this is a feature of our brain. Kahnemann calls the automatic system for this reason ‘ lazy ‘.

When the results of a organization are not so good this can be caused by a number of reasons. Usually this bunch of reasons is complex. There can be new developments on the market, there may be political measures or new regulations and it could also be that a particular customer suddenly goes to the competitor. And sometimes you just don’t know immediately what the cause is. Still, there are managers who maintain that specific departments or employees are responsible for the bad result. They really believe then that that is the cause. (The observant reader recognizes here maybe the concept of cause illusion.) The question: ‘who is responsible?’ then replaces the question “what is the cause? ‘, a question that is much more difficult to answer. In other words:

– What is the cause that our operating result goes backwards?

– That cause is Pete.

But one single person will rarely be the reason that a whole organisation suddenly has a worse performance.

-Your automatic system does assumptions and creates itself causes and intentions that can be completely wrong. Think of the caricature that some politicians make from foreigners. One of their arguments is that Muslims and East Europeans would stimulate unemployment. The cause for unemployment is found in an easy subject: the foreigners. The automatic system of politicians also interprets the intentions of others that are not there. About Muslims they claim, for example, that they actually want to replace the Western legislation by the Islamic law. Lavishly they quote Muslims who have said that, but they don’t tell you that these are quotes from a small minority of the Muslims. We people eat this kind of simple messages like cheesecake, because we are very sensitive to simplifying stories. We need thoughts and feelings that give us a quick safe feeling. So we make up things that we don’t know. Causes and intentions for example.

-Your automatic system notes if something is different from that which is common. ‘ This is different ‘, is your feeling then. When this happens the second or reflective system becomes active. When you arrive at work one morning and they have suddenly broken down the walls between the different spaces, you immediately wonder why. This always is the case when your automatic system records something that is different. If there suddenly is a redirection, you expect signs that show that there is a redirection. Otherwise you become confused. And that’s exactly the moment system 2, the reflective system, awakens .

This also happens on more complex experiences. When it is always calm on a particular department in your organization, you notice it when there is a lot of noise. Small changes in the behavior of loved ones or clients will have the same effect. And also the sudden silence of a talkative coworker instantly convert your reflective system.

-Your automatic system does mental hail shots, gives explanations for things and does unsubstantiated calculations. Ask people how many percent of people drop food, and they call a number. This is a mental hail shot, because no one knows this. There are tv quizzes based on this, in which people prefer spicy questions such as how many percent of men is cheating and who get a orgasm faster, men or women. We give answers on such a moment, without ever having seen one statistic. And we do this even when we are in leadership positions. If someone asks us where we will be within a few years with our company, we do a gamble, but in reality we don’t know. And such a bet is for the automatic system fully acceptable. It doesn’t matter whether it is true or not. We accept something until the contrary appears. And so we are fooled by our brain that gives us the feeling that our estimation is close to reality.

-Your automatic system suggests links when there are none. Do you recognize the illusion of cause? I will illustrate this with an example from my childhood. Formerly I cycled regularly to a nearby village. Along the way I played a game that I took very serious. If I saw a car coming, I said to myself: If that car is earlier than me at that house Feyenoord will win next weekend. When I won then Feyenoord would win too. I believed that really. What I didn’t know then, was that I made a connection between two things that actually were not connected. My bike ride was something that existed, just like the car, but they had nothing to do with Feyenoord, had they? I don’t want to put too much value to the ‘ magical thinking ‘ of a child, but it happens to all of us at another level constantly. We suggest causal links between things all the time. If people don’t function at work and the reason isn’t clear we are looking for a cause immediately.

-I saw him recently with his wife. They argued in front of the supermarket. Perhaps he has problems with his relationship.

-I don’t know if he is able to participate in the change processes.

-Would he be in a mid life crisis?

All these things are possible, but we don’t know for sure. And therefore we should be moderate with conclusions. While we think that our links are correct, it appears that this is not the case. How could we with such a chaotic brain may have an objective judgment on our own intuition?

-Your automatic system gives too much weight to small opportunities. If you take part in the lotto or State Lottery you secretly dream of winning that price. Each week there is a winner, so why wouldn’t you be the lucky girl or guy? The Dutch State Lottery sells about 4 million lottery tickets at a time. There is a price of several million euros. Furthermore, there is always a million and five times 100 000 euros, 10 x 10 000 and 20 x 5000 euros. This means that the chance to win a price of 100 000 or more is 7 on 4 million. You may compare this with U 2 giving 100 concert in stadiums with 40 000 visitors. 7 people of this mass will win 100 000 or more. The chance that this is you is very small. Nevertheless your automatic system calculates in a different way.

Do you know people who go abroad to start a new life by opening a Bed & Breakfast? Even though they know that that kind of enterprises rarely succeed, they think that they will succeed. Their intuition tells them that things will turn out fine for them. And why would they doubt?

The same is true for people who are busy to commit fraud or other corrupt crimes. They think they don’t get caught. This idea can exist because they subconsciously think that the chances of them getting caught are zero. We like to manipulate the reality with our fantasy. Especially when we have interests, we emphasize certain arguments and forget others. Anyone who believes that this is determined by what must be reasonable, might be a little more self critical.

-If something is not clear, your automatic system pretends that is clear and that it understands it. It tells you that it is true what you think. It suppresses and denies doubts. You don’t trace your own misconceptions or wrong intuitive hunches. I once had a colleague who said that his own drawings were brilliant. In the same way he was talking about his intuition. ‘My intuition is genius’ he said, especially if he had drunk too much. Nonsense, you will say. But it is what his automatic system told him. And yes, it happens to you too. And also to me.

-Your automatic system is manipulable. It has the incline to believe and confirm something, even if it is not proven to be true. Thereby we are sensitive to the tricks of politicians or advertisers. Recently someone said to me that dog owners are more religious than cat lovers. Dog owners are more hierarchical, and therefore more sensitive to a higher power. Initially I believed it. After all, why not? When I told this to a friend, he asked me where I had picked up this idea. Then I was awaken. Such a thing can not be investigated. How would you measure it? Collecting all dog and cat owners of the world? Or just a ‘statistic acceptable’ part of them? How reliable is that since we know results can change enormously when you increase the population.

And here I stop the explanation of our automatic system. It’s a useful system when you must act quickly, and in most cases it works fine, because choices turn often out to be fine. But once again I tell you it is anything but perfect. The automatic system (system 1) has more influence on our behaviour as our other system (system 2) is too busy. In practice it means: If you think or you are strongly concentrating or you are busy with a few things at the same time, you become less critical to the things with which you are engaged, to yourself and to your judgement.

But what’s your reflective system? It has other attributes than your automatic system.

-This system is normally in sleep. It is active as the automatic system gets into trouble, for example if it cannot answer or simplify a question. An example. I know a Chinese entrepreneur who started a company in 2007. A few years later, the company had grown to 180 people. The entrepreneur believed that his dead grandparents helped him from the ‘other world’. When the company suddenly got a setback in 2012, his unwavering belief in the help of his grandparents was heavily tested. His automatic system failed to declare why he didn’t get help from his grandparents. He was going to think about it. System 2 was active. It reflected the situation and came to the conclusion that his believe in the help from his ancestors wasn’t true. This is a typical example the activation of system 2 when system 1 is not able to declare something anymore.

-The reflective system is active as the worldview of the automatic system doesn’t appear to be correct. Then it must accept the new process information and customize the worldview. Business economy students that just left school should adjust their worldview of for example leadership quite often. On the universities they have had lectures about Stephen Covey, Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. By these examples they identify themselves with strong leadership at the highest level. Then they leave University, go into business and discover that they have to manage a unit with experienced employees who are in their fifties. Those people have been together for a whole career and do their jobs their way. They also have very much experience with executives. The management trainee is not the first young one with a sweeping broom who wants to drop his ideas about leadership. The trainee discovers then that practical leadership is different than theoretical leadership. You can admire a leader, but this doesn’t mean that you’re him.

This experience leads to renewal of your worldview. The reflective system intervenes, because the ideas of the automatic system doesn’t seem to be correct anymore. Leadership from now on means that trainees have to influence and motivate people. In doing so, they will first have to be accepted by their staff; and that was not yet clear on the University. I have heard this story of many trainees.

– The reflective system intervenes also with more complicated mental efforts and complex calculations, because the automatic system is not able to do so. 1 + 1 = 2 is not complicated for the automatic system. But there are many more complicated calculations to figure out. People make unconsciously calculations with their automatic system sometimes. I know an independent contractor that always feels like a rich man when his customers have paid his invoices. He forgets to count the tax and other charges which he as an entrepreneur. He is very often irritated about the taxes. If he would use his reflective system better this wouldn’t happen to him.

When someone asks you why your company is less succesfull you’re inclined to answer that it is because of the crisis. This is probably a simplification of reality, and so a deception of system 1. For why do your competitors do it better? The truth is that you actually don’t know, and that your brain doesn’t like that. So it brings something up immediately. Your reflective system is activated because the automatic system is unsatisfactory.

-In contrast to the automatic system the contemplative system tests the incoming information on accuracy. It is much more critical than the automatic system and will not replace any tough question by an easy question. An example of a difficult question replaced by an easy question is this. The question of how a light switch works exactly has a complex answer. But our automatic system pretends that this doesn’t matter. It answered the question as follows: ‘ With a light switch you put on the lamp by pressing on a knob. ‘ The reflective system follows rules and makes choices between alternatives. The automatic system can’t do this. This makes quick and ill-considered choices and is satisfied with simple descriptions. The reflective system tests much more critical.

-The reflective system we know as the conscious rational ‘self’. However, many of our actions occur unconsciously. When you walk out of the door in the morning, you will find the way to the metro without thinking about it. You pick up a free morning paper in the metro and if you arrive at your arrival station you take a quick cup of coffee. All these things can be done from the fully automatic system. You don’t have to think about it. Intuitively we know what we have to do. But when we are suddenly aware that we have developed a wrong habit the reflective system starts working. Then we can make choices to do something else. That requires to act consciously for a little. And that can be an unnatural feeling

-The reflective system is much slower than the automatic system. It considers more and needs more time. When something is considered and executed very often, it may transform from a part of the reflective system into a part of the automatic system. The question is whether you are aware of those signals. In a culture where quick decisions are needed, is little need for extensive considerations. This makes the reflective system less popular in environments of rapid decisions.

-The reflective system monitors the own behavior, but is also lazy. It takes a lot for granted that is delivered by the automatic system. That means that the system is able to self reflection, but doesn’t like it. This results in people telling all sorts of superficial things about themselves as explanation for their behavior. If they work hard, they connect it with the region where they come from: ‘I am from Rotterdam’. Or if they are tired, they say that they take over the energies of others, because they are highly sensitive. The automatic system accepts such explanations for the behavior because they are simple and attractive. When people would investigate why they are working so hard, they probably would find more complicated reasons than geographical reasons. But why should you investigate something as things seem to go well? People don’t like to be complicated and because of that they make things sometimes needlessly complicated.

Neuroscientist Swaab points out that a placebo has the same effect on the brain as a real medicine. Our brain deceives us, but we can also trick our brain apparently. We believe that something works and the brain takes it for granted. It doesn’t matter if that something is correct, or incorrect.

-When the reflective system is under pressure, the automatic system is more active. People are then more tired and make more selfish choices, use rougher language and judge things more superficial. The intelligence level does not matter; it applies to all sections of the population. The reflective system is not more critical than the automatic system; it is as well easy to deceive and also lazy. The control of the system falters then too sometimes. In practice most people don’t bother to think through. Too busy. And what that means for intuition you can predict: it is not tested critically. Not before, and not afterwards. I am have never come across someone who had kept a score to establish how often his intuition was right. Still a lot of people claim that their intuition is always right .

Until here the explanation of the automatic and reflective system. As with the six brain illusions it turns out that we don’t test our intuitive hunches and that’s too bad. Because those hunches tend to make things simpler than they are. Our brain is not primarily focused on truth but on safety. If situations are safe, then it’s sufficient for us. There is no reason to believe that intuition, which is a product of an imperfect brain, makes a perfectly true analysis of reality. This should alert us: If we know that we are wrong and think that we are right, we should be more critical on our hunches. The brain waves themselves don’t have to be wrong. The problem is that we are not critical enough to handle it. The opinion is thus: be careful with intuitive and instinctive hunches. Don’t ignore them, but view them thoroughly and test them critical. Possibly with others.

More noise

And then there are more things that make our intuition incalculable. For example, if people do something for 30 years according to a certain method, they very often have the opinion that it is the best method. ‘It’s has been good for thirty years, it has proven itself, so we should not change it, because things go wrong then’, our intuition whispers. But is this true? Routine can help us to make work easier, but when we have to predict things we are going wrong because we subconsciously think that reality always behaves in the same way. Routine is too often: thinking that the future will be like the past. Not only ignorant people do this, but also the experts. And then there are the assumptions and stereotypes based on experiences. These are quite popular at people who have resistance to something.

-My intuition tells me that the change manager isn’t good. He is the tenth manager I have had in fifteen years and they are all the same. They pass through, do their thing, let a mess behind and leave with filled purses.

Emotional involvement also reduces the quality of our intuitions. You can conclude this for example from the behaviour of shareholders, because they are emotionally involved in their shares. Because of this involvement they often see more problems than necessary. Their analysis on developments in the future may be unnecessarily bleak. And no one says anything about it, because who will contradict the shareholder? If we are emotional, our heart rate is getting higher. We get tunnel visions and predict things that never will be there. We don’t even recognize faces in those situations in the right way.

And a last threat for the quality of our intuition are the unforeseen circumstances, or: the external factors. Think about a hairdresser that I know, who thinks that his intuition is always right.

-If I appear to be wrong, it is not because of my intuition but because of the external conditions.

That sort of reasoning amazes me. If intuition indeed would be so reliable, it would also have been able to predict that external circumstances. Then Israeli Better Place would never have lost billions with the building of exchange stations for electric cars. And there many other examples of external conditions and unforeseen circumstances that turned intuitive hunches into nonsensical guesses. Unforeseen circumstances are so influential that they are included in the law. We should not underestimate them.

When you know all this, you become much more cautious with blindly following your intuition. We very often think we understand something, but this has been proven not to be the case. But in the meantime there is a strong need for faster decision-making. How do we solve that problem and what will we do with intuition?


  1. Don’t jump to conclusions.
  2. Don’t present things more simple than they are.
  3. If you have an explanation for something, check out if it’s not a ‘mental hail shot’ instead of a proper explanation.
  4. Don’t overestimate your chances.
  5. Take time for contemplation, take a decision and apply it then rapidly.
  6. Check to what extent a reaction or inspiration stems from emotional involvement.
  7. Take into account external factors that may destroy your intuitive hunches

(to be continued)

Bert Overbeek is trainer, personal/team coach and management developer  His work is much based on recent research about the human brain and mind. (, pitcher


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