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Start The Role of Intuition in Decision Making
05 March 2014

The Role of Intuition in Decision Making

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In a recent interview, Eduard Punset argued that if we have to make a decision it is better to leave this to intuition rather than to approach it rationally. In other words, it is better to ignore our usual rational attitude to life for a while when making decisions.

If we look at the history of rationalism, one of the key works is René Descartes’ “Discourse on the method”. In the second part of his work, Descartes says “…divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.” In the third part, he describes two problems which inevitably involve decision making. The first is the repair of a house and the second being lost in a forest. Is it not true that many people would immediately intuit, in the first case, that it is necessary to find some other comfortable accommodation in which to live commodiously during the operations, and in the second that it would be better to set off in any direction and follow it, thus arriving somewhere that would be better than remaining in the middle of the forest? Well, this is what Descartes proposed as the correct solution.

It turns out that even one of the key works of rationalism clearly espouses that in certain situations intuition can also be a good advisor. Perhaps Descartes was referring to intuition in the second part of his work when he says “…carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice”. Perhaps he is saying that sometimes taking precautions stops us making correct decisions that we reach without knowing how? And wouldn’t such correct decisions be due to intuition?

Considering this, we might be inclined to think that reason and intuition are happy to bed fellows. However, this is not always the case: often it is quite the opposite. After searching for examples in which reason and intuition come into conflict, I consider that the most representative situation is that described by Robert Graves in his story “The Abominable Mr. Gunn”. Mr. Gunn set his students a math problem from Hildebrand’s “Mathematics for preparatory schools”. However, his student F.F. Smilley is distracted and when questioned by Mr. Gunn replies that he already knows the solution, adding that there is an error in the answer key and, if that wasn’t enough, he ends up telling Mr. Gunn that he knows Hilderbrand personally. Rather than taking an interest in this curious phenomena, Mr. Gunn believes the student is laughing at him, and therefore punishes him with the help of the college principal. Robert Graves is obviously recounting one of the ways in which intuition can show up surprisingly and how someone -Mr. Gunn, in this case- can behave in the most intolerant way whilst claiming to be the guardian of reason.

Perhaps Graves’s situation is a little extreme. But I consider that it represents something that happens very often in everyday life; and I am convinced that this is due to our inclination to seek the most comfortable path. In Graves’ story, the student disrupts the routine Mr. Gunn has established during his years of teaching, consisting of: 1) posing a problem; 2) giving his students some time to answer it; and 3) finally, correcting the problem or calling a student to the board.

F.F. Smilley clearly overturns these steps, making Mr. Gunn feel defenseless. We habitually use language to separate and create clear and precise distinctions so as to simplify reality. In the current case, this leads to expressions that present reason as a force and intuition as a kind of free enlightenment that it always more convenient. And that is why Eduard Punset’s comments mentioned at the outset are so surprising. I don’t believe that a clear separation between reason and intuition is so immediate. The French professor and philosopher Gilles Deleuze published a summary of the thought of Henri Bergson entitled Bergsonism. In the first chapter he argues that intuition is (also) an elaborated method; to demonstrate this he sets out a number of rules, of which the first is “Apply the test of true and false to problems themselves. Condemn false problems and reconcile truth and creation at the level of problems”. Wouldn’t this fit straight into Descartes’ Discourse on the Method?

Eduard Punset`s advice is very clear: intuition is as important as reason in decision making and perhaps there are sufficient reasons to think that we are better designed to exploit intuition.

Roberto Benavent

Graduate in Statistical Techniques and Sciences, Alicante (Spain)


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