Kahneman Explains How Intuition Leads Us Astray


By Eric Jaffe
Staff Writer

“I specialize in flaws,” Kahneman said.

Part of Kahneman’s intent was to show that flawed thinking plays no favorites. Sure enough, despite his vast understanding of the subject, Kahneman himself claimed to be susceptible to misleading intuition…

According to Kahneman, some human intuition is good, and some is erroneous. And like the incorrigible habit of the knuckle cracker, the bad ones are very difficult to correct.

One reason flawed intuition is allowed to permeate human thinking is its accessibility.…. “Intuitive impressions come to mind without explicit intention, and without any confrontation, and this is one of their distinctive aspects,” he said.

To better understand the reasons for this accessibility, Kahneman has focused much of his research on expert intuitions.

  • Expert intuitions are able to deal swiftly and decisively with a difficult matter – such as making a quick chess move or fighting a fire – that would seem to require extensive deliberation
  • Most of the time, a person with expert intuition is not really conscious of making a decision, but rather acts as though their instinctive choice is the only natural outcome of a circumstance.


  • Unless certain conditions of expertise – namely, prolonged practice and rapid, unequivocal feedback – are fulfilled
  • What develops is little more than the exigent knowledge of experience
  • This can lead to false impressions and overconfident experts, a subject explored by Kahneman and his longtime research partner, the late Amos Tversky.

“People jump to statistical conclusions on the basis of very weak evidence. We form powerful intuitions about trends and about the replicability of results on the basis of information that is truly inadequate,” Kahneman said.  For this reason, a person who is not an expert, even if thoroughly versed in a field of study, might make an intuitive mistake.

Kahneman leaned heavily on the closely related argument made by another, prominent psychologist, the late Paul Meehl. In the mid-1950s, Meehl:

  • Gave clinicians personality information about individuals and asked that they predict behavioral outcomes
  • The predictions were then compared to statistical models based on the subset of information available to the clinicianIn a study that still holds up over 50 years later
  • Meehl found that when the clinician competed with the statistical formula, the formula won almost every time.

This finding has served as the basis for Kahneman’s theory about overconfident experts.  “What you find is a great deal of confidence in the presence of very poor accuracy,” Kahneman explained. “So the confidence people have is not a good indication of how accurate they are.”

Overconfidence is accentuated by the failure of people to, in general, learn from their mistakes. “When something happens that a person has not anticipated, … they remain convinced that what they had predicted, although it didn’t happen, almost happened,” he said. The overconfidence is then propagated while the accuracy remains the same, and the cycle begins again.

“Most judgments in actions are governed by [intuitive thought],” he said. “Most of our mental life is relatively effortless.”  This is why effortful work, such as trying to remember a phone number of five years ago, is more susceptible to interference, and therefore less accessible.

Interference is often enabled by poor monitoring, a shortcoming that results from our normally unconditional acceptance of intuition…”Accessibility, or the ease with which thoughts come to mind, has an influence not only on the operation of intuition – it almost defines intuition – but on the operations of computation,” he said. “Our ability to avoid errors depends on what comes to mind, and whether the corrected thought comes to mind adequately.”

But “what comes to mind” might actually be what does not come to mind.

…We don’t compute everything we could compute. We do not use all the information that is actually available.”

For this reason, Kahneman argued that intuitive activities are very similar to perceptual activities, such as seeing and hearing. “These processes of perception are going to guide us in understanding intuition,” he said. Take, for example, the following display sets, which are actually less defined than they appear:

“When people make decisions, they tend to suppress alternative interpretations,” Kahneman said. “We become aware only of a single solution – this is a fundamental rule in perceptual processing. All the other solutions that might have been considered by the system – and sometimes we know that alternative solutions have been considered and rejected – we do not become aware of.  So consciousness is at the level of a choice that has already been made.”

But despite all this understanding, Kahneman steered clear of offering a direct solution to flawed thinking…. Besides, relying on computation instead of intuition would, according to Kahneman, create a slow, laborious, difficult, and costly world.

What he did advocate is paying closer attention to the onset of faulty intuition.