Wednesday, December 27, 2006

So here's what we mean by intuition

This article from Fast Company is a great intro to Gary Klein's work (see also his interview at NASA's ASK magazine).

Intuition is often poorly defined, if at all. Sometimes it is mentioned as 'unconscious knowledge'. Our definition is 'acquired instinct'--and instinct is of course 'unconscious mental or physical response. But this is for another post. (For the philosophers out there: kindly disregard our mental/physical distinction above as mere artifact; this is no praise of dualism; more on the issue in the future).

Back to intuition. Gary Klein is probably the psychologist which provided the best basic research on it; bringing up the recognition-primed decision model. One thing I find quite pleasing is that whenever the model is described, it is Klein's epiphany that's being described; not some arid psycho-model:

Six years after he founded his company, Klein won a major contract from the Army Research Institute, which asked him to study how people make decisions under time pressure and uncertainty. He decided to track firefighters. He moved into a firehouse in Cleveland and started his interviews. But there was a problem: Veteran firefighters said that they never made decisions. They would simply arrive at a fire, look it over, and attack it. Klein was horrified. "Here we'd just won this big contract, and we were focused on members of a community who said that they never made decisions.

"The commanders said fire fighting is just a matter of following routine procedures," Klein continues. "So I asked to see the book in which all of those procedures were codified. And they looked at me as if I was nuts. They said, 'Nothing's written down. You just learn through experience.' That word -- 'experience' -- became my first clue.

"I noticed that when the most experienced commanders confronted a fire, the biggest question they had to deal with wasn't 'What do I do?' It was 'What's going on?' That's what their experience was buying them -- the ability to size up a situation and to recognize the best course of action."


"what's going on" is, of course, the central question involved on the Copycat Project. But let's not get too carried away for the time being. Let's just take it for granted that humans do have the power to quickly perceive situations in very abstract terms. More on how this is achieved -- and the implications for Klein's model --, in the future.

Thought of this way, intuition is really a matter of learning how to see -- of looking for cues or patterns that ultimately show you what to do. The commander who saved his crew didn't have ESP, he simply had "SP." His sensory perception detected subtle details -- small-but-stubborn fire, extreme heat, eerie quiet -- that would have been invisible to less-experienced firefighters. "Experienced decision makers see a different world than novices do," concludes Klein. "And what they see tells them what they should do. Ultimately, intuition is all about perception. The formal rules of decision making are almost incidental."

The critical role of recognition in decision making came into sharper focus when Beth Crandall, 51, vice president of research operations at Klein Associates, got a contract from the National Institutes of Health to study how intensive-care nurses make decisions. In 1989, she interviewed 19 nurses who worked in the neonatal ward of Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. The nurses cared for newborns in distress -- some postmature, some premature. When premature babies develop a septic condition or an infection, it can rapidly spread throughout their bodies and kill them. Detecting sepsis quickly is critical. Crandall heard dozens of stories from nurses who would glance at an infant, instantly recognize that the baby was succumbing to an infection, and take emergency action to save the baby's life. How did they know whether to act? Almost always, Crandall got the same answer: "You just know."


You just know. You don't think; don't compare options; don't evaluate anything. You just know. That is our phenomena; our anchoring point in looking at decision-making theories.

That's our baby.

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