Biases of Intuitive and Logical Thinkers

Any intuition-dominant thinker who’s struggled with math problems or logic-dominant thinker who’s struggled with small-talk knows how difficult and hopeless the experience feels like. For a long time I was an intuition thinker, then I developed a logical thinking style and soon it ended up dominating — granting me the luxury of experiencing both kinds of struggles. I eventually learned to apply the thinking style better optimized for the problem I was facing. Looking back, I realized why I kept sticking to one extreme.

I hypothesize that one-sided thinkers develop biases and tendencies that prevent them from improving their weaker mode of thinking. These biases cause a positive feedback loop that further skews thinking styles in the same direction.

The reasons why one style might be overdeveloped and the other underdeveloped vary greatly. Genes have a strong influence, but environment also plays a large part. A teacher may have inspired you to love learning science at a young age, causing you to foster a thinking style better for learning science. Or maybe you grew up very physically attractive and found socializing with your peers a lot more rewarding than studying after school, causing you to foster a thinking style better for navigating social situations. Environment can be changed to help develop certain thinking styles, but it should be supplementary to exposing and understanding the biases you already have. Entering an environment that penalizes your thinking style can be uncomfortable, stressful and frustrating without being prepared. (Such a painful experience is part of why these biases cause a positive feedback loop, by making us avoid environments that require the opposite thinking style.)

Despite genetic predisposition and environmental circumstances, there’s room for improvement and exposing these biases and learning to account for them is a great first step.

Below is a list of a few biases that worsen our ability to solve a certain class of problems and keep us from improving our underdeveloped thinking style.

Intuition-dominant Biases

Overlooking crucial details

Details matter in order to understand technical concepts. Overlooking a word or sentence structure can cause complete misunderstanding — a common blunder for intuition thinkers.

Intuition is really good at making fairly accurate predictions without complete information, enabling us to navigate the world without having a deep understanding of it. As a result, intuition trains us to experience the feeling we understand something without examining every detail. In most situations, paying close attention to detail is unnecessary and sometimes dangerous. When learning a technical concept, every detail matters and the premature feeling of understanding stops us from examining them.

This bias is one that’s more likely to go away once you realize it’s there. You often don’t know what details you’re missing after you’ve missed them, so merely remembering that you tend to miss important details should prompt you to take closer examinations in the future.

Expecting solutions to sound a certain way

The Internship has a great example of this bias (and a few others) in action. The movie is about two middle-aged unemployed salesmen (intuition thinkers) trying to land an internship with Google. Part of Google’s selection process has the two men participate in several technical challenges. One challenge required the men and their team to find a software bug. In a flash of insight, Vince Vaughn’s character, Billy, shouts “Maybe the answer is in the question! Maybe it has something to do with the word bug. A fly!” After enthusiastically making several more word associations, he turns to his team and insists they take him seriously.

Why is it believable to the audience that Billy can be so confident about his answer?

Billy’s intuition made an association between the challenge question and riddle-like questions he’s heard in the past. When Billy used his intuition to find a solution, his confidence in a riddle-like answer grew. Intuition recklessly uses irrelevant associations as reasons for narrowing down the space of possible solutions to technical problems. When associations pop in your mind, it’s a good idea to legitimize those associations with supporting reasons.

Not recognizing precise language

Intuition thinkers are multi-channel learners — all senses, thoughts and emotions are used to construct a complex database of clustered knowledge to predict and understand the world. With robust information-extracting ability, correct grammar/word-usage is, more often than not, unnecessary for meaningful communication.

Communicating technical concepts in a meaningful way requires precise language. Connotation and subtext are stripped away so words and phrases can purely represent meaningful concepts inside a logical framework. Intuition thinkers communicate with imprecise language, gathering meaning from context to compensate. This makes it hard for them to recognize when to turn off their powerful information extractors.

This bias explains part of why so many intuition thinkers dread math “word problems”. Introducing words and phrases rich with meaning and connotation sends their intuition running wild. It’s hard for them to find correspondences between words in the problem and variables in the theorems and formulas they’ve learned.

The noise intuition brings makes it hard to think clearly. It’s hard for intuition thinkers to tell whether their automatic associations should be taken seriously. Without a reliable way to discern, wrong interpretations of words go undetected. For example, without any physics background, an intuition thinker may read the statement “Matter can have both wave and particle properties at once” and believe they completely understand it. Unrelated associations of what matter, wave and particle mean, blindly take precedence over technical definitions.

The slightest uncertainty about what a sentence means should raise a red flag. Going back and finding correspondence between each word and how it fits into a technical framework will eliminate any uncertainty.

Believing their level of understanding is deeper than what it is

Intuition works on an unconscious level, making intuition thinkers unaware of how they know what they know. Not surprisingly, their best tool to learn what it means to understand is intuition. The concept “understanding” is a collection of associations from experience. You may have learned that part of understanding something means being able to answer questions on a test with memorized factoids, or knowing what to say to convince people you understand, or just knowing more facts than your friends. These are not good methods for gaining a deep understanding of technical concepts.

When intuition thinkers optimize for understanding, they’re really optimizing for a fuzzy idea of what they think understanding means. This often leaves them believing they understand a concept when all they’ve done is memorize some disconnected facts. Not knowing what it feels like to have deeper understanding, they become conditioned to always expect some amount of surprise. They can feel max understanding with less confidence than logical thinkers when they feel max understanding. This lower confidence disincentivizes intuition thinkers to invest in learning technical concepts, further keeping their logical thinking style underdeveloped.

One way I overcame this tendency was to constantly ask myself “why” questions, like a curious child bothering their parents. The technique helped me uncover what used to be unknown unknowns that made me feel overconfident in my understanding.

Logic-dominant Biases

Ignoring information they cannot immediately fit into a framework

Logical thinkers have and use intuition — problem is they don’t feed it enough. They tend to ignore valuable intuition-building information if it doesn’t immediately fit into a predictive model they deeply understand. While intuition thinkers don’t filter out enough noise, logical thinkers filter too much.

For example, if a logical thinker doesn’t have a good framework for understanding human behavior, they’re more likely to ignore visual input like body language and fashion, or auditory input like tone of voice and intonation. Human behavior is complicated, there’s no framework to date that can make perfectly accurate predictions about it. Intuition can build powerful models despite working with many confounding variables.

Bayesian probability enables logical thinkers to build predictive models from noisy data without having to use intuition. But even then, the first step of making a Bayesian update is data collection.

Combatting this tendency requires you to pay attention to input you normally ignore. Supplement your broader attentional scope with a researched framework as a guide. Say you want to learn how storytelling works. Start by grabbing resources that teach storytelling and learn the basics. Out in the real-world, pay close attention to sights, sounds, and feelings when someone starts telling a story and try identifying sensory input to the storytelling elements you’ve learned about. Once the basics are subconsciously picked up by habit, your conscious attention will be freed up to make new and more subtle observations.

Ignoring their emotions

Emotional input is difficult to factor, especially because you’re emotional at the time. Logical thinkers are notorious for ignoring this kind of messy data, consequently starving their intuition of emotional data. Being able to “go with your gut feelings” is a major function of intuition that logical thinkers tend to miss out on.

Your gut can predict if you’ll get along long-term with a new SO, or what kind of outfit would give you more confidence in your workplace, or if learning tennis in your free time will make you happier, or whether you prefer eating a cheeseburger over tacos for lunch. Logical thinkers don’t have enough data collected about their emotions to know what triggers them. They tend to get bogged down and mislead with objective, yet trivial details they manage to factor out. A weak understanding of their own emotions also leads to a weaker understanding of other’s emotions. You can become a better empathizer by better understanding yourself.

You could start from scratch and build your own framework, but self-assessment biases will impede productivity. Learning an existing framework is a more realistic solution. You can find resources with some light googling. One way is making sure you’re always consciously aware of the circumstances you’re in when experiencing an emotion.

Making rules too strict

Logical thinkers build frameworks in order to understand things. When adding a new rule to a framework, there’s motivation to make the rule strict. The stricter the rule, the more predictive power, the better the framework. When the domain you’re trying to understand has multivariable chaotic phenomena, strict rules are likely to break. The result is something like the current state of macroeconomics: a bunch of logical thinkers preoccupied by elegant models and theories that can only exist when useless in practice.

Following rules that are too strict can have bad consequences. Imagine John the salesperson is learning how to make better first impressions and has built a rough framework so far. John has a rule that smiling always helps make people feel welcomed the first time they meet him. One day he makes a business trip to Russia to meet with a prospective client. The moment he meet his russian client, he flashes a big smile and continues to smile despite negative reactions. After a few hours of talking, his client reveals she felt he wasn’t trustworthy at first and almost called off the meeting. Turns out that in Russia smiling to strangers is a sign of insincerity. John’s strict rule didn’t account for cultural differences, blindsiding him from updating on his clients reaction, putting him in a risky situation.

The desire to hold onto strict rules can make logical thinkers susceptible to confirmation bias too. If John made an exception to his smiling rule, he’d feel less confident about his knowledge of making first impressions, subsequently making him feel bad. He may also have to amend some other rule that relates to the smiling rule, which would further hurt his framework and his feelings.

When feeling the urge to add on a new rule, take note of circumstances in which the evidence for the rule was found in. Add exceptions that limit the rule’s predictive power to similar circumstances. Another option is to entertain multiple conflicting rules simultaneously, shifting weight from one to the other after gathering more evidence.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s