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The Limits of Intuition

December 8, 2010 by Ron Averill

The human brain is capable of making quick and effortless judgments about people, objects or ideas that it has not previously encountered. This sort of unreasoned insight is often called intuition. In his article, “The Powers and Perils of Intuition” (Scientific American MIND, June 2007, pp 24–31), David Myers describes two types of influence that shape our intuition.

Fork in the roadThe first is the development of mental shortcuts, or heuristics, which allow us to make snap judgments, often correctly. For example, our intuition tells us that blurry objects are farther away than clear ones. This is often a helpful assumption, except that on foggy mornings, a car in front of you may be much closer than intuition tells you it is.

The second influence on intuition is “learned associations” or life experiences that guide our actions. This explains why we may be suspicious of a stranger who resembles someone who once threatened us, even if we do not consciously make the association. Similarly, an experienced engineer can often quickly solve a problem that resembles one he worked on many years ago, even if the details of that project are mostly forgotten.

We spend our entire lives developing intuitive expertise that is based on our experiences. So should we trust our intuition, or should we lean more on deliberate, rational thought?

When it comes to engineering design, the answer is both. We certainly want to take advantage of all the related experience we have gained during our careers. But just as our experiences shape our intuition, they can also limit our ability to be innovative.

Two major limitations of intuition are described by Eric Bonabeau in his article, “Don’t Trust Your Gut,” (Harvard Business Review, May 2003):

  1. Intuition is not always good at evaluating options and solutions. This may be because people tend to fixate on their first idea. Or, because few of us can comprehend the interaction effects between many different components of a situation.

  2. Intuition is never good at exploring alternatives. It is not helpful when seeking out original solutions.
Intuition is good for making decisions when the current situation resembles a previous one, but not when the circumstances are very different. And clearly intuition is a poor tool for generating innovative solutions to complex problems. As Eric Bonabeau notes, “Intuition is a means not of assessing complexity but of ignoring it.”

Fortunately, we now have advanced optimization search algorithms that can help us overcome the shortcomings of our intuition. By broadly searching complex design spaces without bias or fatigue, modern optimization tools provide a rational mathematical process for exploring new concepts and for solving challenging design problems.

When used together, intuition and mathematical optimization tools enjoy a positive symbiotic relationship, with each one enhancing the performance, and making up for the weaknesses, of the other.

The use of automated mathematical optimization is certainly consistent with Albert Einstein’s counsel that, “One should never impose one's views on a problem; one should rather study it, and in time a solution will reveal itself."