Last night I found an article about intuition in Business 2.0 titled How to Think With Your Gut by Thomas A. Stewart (via Creative Generalist). Intuition is clearly looked down upon; what’s valued is rationality, logic and reason – which means that in lots of situations, people respond too slowly and with too much effort to things that happen (whether it be in their private life or in their work life; I know, because I suffer from this myself).

I came to think about this the other day as I sent an email to Niklas Johansson about speed reading (see herehere – and here). Particularly, I thought about Alan Watts’ ideas about the floodlight and the spotlight (which I’ve mentioned earlier). Spotlight is about rationality and logic, about focusing on the parts and ignoring the whole, whereas floodlight is about responding to your gut feeling, about trusting your brain’s powers of pattern recognition. Thomas Stewart writes:

The most brilliant decisions tend to come from the gut. While that observation is not new, it is now backed by a growing body of research from economics, neurology, cognitive psychology, and other fields. What the science suggests is that intuition – or instinct, or hunch, or “learning without awareness,” or whatever you want to call it – is a real form of knowledge. It may be nonrational, ineffable, and not always easy to get in touch with, but it can process more information on a more sophisticated level than most of us ever dreamed. Psychologists now say that far from being the opposite of effective decision-making, intuition is inseparable from it. Without it we couldn’t decide anything at all.

Alan Watts meant that today (this was in the ‘60s, but it definitely still applies) we rely too much on the spotlight intelligence. We can’t definitely do without it, but then again, we can’t do with too little of the floodlight intelligence either. There must be a balance. In one of his talks, or if I read it somewhere, he referred to scientists, saying that they might have a hunch that something is in a particular way, but then have to resort to the scientific method of proof, by meticulously studying the parts of whatever it was about – only to, much later, arrive at the same conclusion. He was definitely not out to reject the scientific method – which he’d certainly agree is important – but rather to try to get us to value intuition more.

Several years ago, I read an article somewhere about how firefighters make decisions in action, and there was one story that I particularly liked, about how a firefighter had entered a house in flames, and instantly “known” that something bad was going to happen, so he ordered his men out of the building, after which it blew up. He’d saved his entire team. Some expert said in the article that he’d relied on pattern recognition, by being attentive to subtle signals, such as sound, how the floor felt (there was a boiler or something in the basement below that was about to explode, so perhaps the floor boards bulged), etc. The firefighter himself said he just had known something was about to happen. In cases like this, you can’t rely on reason.

The article cites research about firefighters and marines, which are fields where I’d say that anyone would agree to the supposition that intuition is better than reason; but then Stewart goes on to talk about economic theory, about George Soros relying on his gut feeling when doing business – and mentions a study of 300 executives regarding their decision making: “Intuition was clearly the favored strategy for computer-industry execs. Planful approaches were the norm in the relatively staid, rules-driven utilities industry.” It concludes by saying that today’s business world has grown so complex that relying on intuition is a do or die.

Back to the firefighters; Stewart writes that they “don’t weigh alternatives [but] simply grab the first idea that seems good enough, then the next, and the next after that. To them it doesn’t even feel like “deciding.”” In XP, we have a motto that goes “Try the simplest thing that could possibly work.” In my early XP days, I didn’t understand this; I interpreted it as “Try the simplest possible thing that will work.” Now, finding the simplest thing that could possibly work can, indeed, be very difficult and time consuming. An experienced programmer, however, can pick the first simple solution he or she can think of – based on his gut feeling – and then see if it works. If you don’t spend a lot of time weighing the alternatives, you’ll have time to throw it all away and pick another simple solution, based on what you learned from trying the first one.

I definitely think there’s, in software development, either too much emphasis on logic and reason, or too little emphasis on your gut feeling. Either you plan and design too much, or you jump headlong into coding, with no particular idea of what you should do, and then patch it up until it works. What we need to do is to build an experience as fuel for the gut feeling, and trust our gut feeling. Stewart also lists some guidelines for training their instincts, among which the most important one is practice. For programmers, this means design practice: studying design patterns and being sensitive to the designs that you help to evolve.

Now I’ll have to end this post before it gets too long.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on November 19, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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