Gut Feelings. Gerd Gigerenzer.

Gigerenzer, Gerd. Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. Penguin, London, 2007. NF; 02/14.

This interesting book for me illustrates something recursive about gut feelings, and I ended up with one of my own about the author’s approach to them.

I first became aware of Dr. Gigerenzer because of another of his books, Better Doctors, Better Patients, Better Decisions concerned with medical decision-making. He is certainly a highly accomplished academic (psychologist) who in his mid-60s heads the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, one of a range of research outfits named after the famous physicist. Gigerenzer has been a professional jazz and dixieland musician which encourages a reader’s optimism. I liked the opinions he expressed in the book about medicine.

My very well-organized brother likes to say there are two kinds of people in this world, prior to expressing a value-laden opinion about human nature. The two kinds I find relevant in commenting on Gut Feelings are tidy people and messy people. A good friend (who is if anything more obsessive than my brother) and I once agreed that the most important thing about a preoccupation with tidiness is the ability to turn it on and off. To intentionally leave a task unfinished, avoid reaching a conclusion, and include a miscellaneous or garbage can category. So some people are categorizers, analyzers, and tidiers and others like sometimes to leave things in a little bit of disarray. These would be believers in DH Lawrence’s idea that one shouldn’t be too clean because it improverishes the soul.

Messiness advocates (I’m one, may I be forgiven) have a gut feeling that intuition arrives best and most often when it is invited by an open and incompleted frame of mind, which we experience as inimical to the kind of systematic analysis we find in this book.

Dr. Gigerenzer’s argument however is that decisions based on intuition are very frequently superior to those based on detailed analysis. He illustrates this with anecdotes and backs it up with original research. This superiority of intuition is based (he goes on to analyze in detail) on evolved capacities like having emotions or imitating others, behaviour “building blocks” based on these capacities like strategies for gaining advantage through their use, and finally “rules of thumb” like when to use these strategies.  It’s a distinctly tidy, concrete, and closed-ended treatment of his distinctly messy, abstract and open-ended topic. And that’s the problem I have.

On the plus side in my subjective (gut-feeling) analysis, he understands that the artificial intelligence enterprise was abandoned several years ago because human creativity is embodied: based on evolved brain and body strengths and limitations and so is not only unique but not necessarily the best it could be for its tasks. He also makes much of the impact of the environment on decisions we make and actions we take, comparable to Damasio’s understanding of consciousness as a self watching itself being impacted by things.

But in the end, I come away from reading with a pretty consistent gut feeling that the author may be the kind of tidier that can’t help himself. His style and tone gives his analytic brand of curiosity away even though his thesis suggests he’s advocating exactly the opposite.

I find gut feelings don’t benefit from analysis, on the contrary. The contribution this author makes is to draw our attention to intution’s superiority to analysis in certain situations and the value of knowing when to “go with” gut feelings. But for me intution works best when I let the feelings arrive unimpeded by disjunctive curiosity.

Dr. Gigerenzer could be adept at switching tidiness and messiness on and off, but in this book his analysis of gut feelings leaves little room for uncertainty, tidies the intuitive disorder I find necessary into extinction and would, according to me and people like me, limit gut feelings’ effectiveness by putting them in a box. 8.6/7.4.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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