Before Gladwell Blinked, This Guy Followed Gut

amidon graph Before Gladwell Blinked, This Guy Followed GutGUT FEELINGS: THE INTELLIGENCE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
By Gerd Gigerenzer
Viking, 280 pages, $25.95

Readers who found Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink stronger on anecdote than analysis will welcome this incisive study by a psychologist whose research provided one of the bases for Mr. Gladwell’s best seller. Gerd Gigerenzer, a director of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, maintains that gut feelings, partial ignorance and selective forgetting are more important in making rapid decisions than a wealth of information and rigorous logic. “Without cognitive limitations,” he claims, “we would not function as intelligently as we do.” When it comes to making the right choice, he maintains, less is often more.

Deploying surprising data and entertaining graphics, Mr. Gigerenzer shows how humans use a process he calls the “recognition heuristic” as a shortcut for arriving at decisions. Simply put, this means that when faced with a choice between something familiar and something unknown, people tend to opt for the former, and this choice is often correct. For example, a group of German students fared better than their American counterparts when asked whether Detroit or Milwaukee had the larger population. The reason was simple: Most of the Germans had never heard of Milwaukee, so they correctly deduced that it must be smaller. Americans, who had heard of both cities, managed to tie themselves in knots trying to figure out proper reasons for their guess.

Another key concept the author champions is “take the best,” which essentially means that important decisions are often based on one good reason rather than a whole shopping list. When surveyed about how they would choose a doctor in an emergency involving their child, a group of parents responded overwhelmingly that they would be happier relying on a single criterion (such as willingness to listen) than trying to satisfy an array of preconditions.

As part of his argument in favor of intuition, Mr. Gigerenzer points out the damage that overanalysis is inflicting on the U.S. health care system. “My own conviction is that physicians already use simple rules of thumb but for fear of lawsuits do not always admit it.” The result is a data-flooded, test-crazy system on the brink of collapse. Far better, he suggests, to let the doctor tap the aquifer of expertise percolating in his unconscious.

Although it’s difficult to argue with Mr. Gigerenzer’s analysis of how the decision-making process often works, the author seems a bit too enamored of the benefits of rules of thumb over more deliberative, logic-dependent decision making. While it’s true that a wise doctor can be worth a thousand M.R.I.’s, it’s also true that the “recognition heuristic” can be easily manipulated by advertisers who spend billions to plant brand names in our unconscious so we will purchase products no better than their rivals. More dangerously, our intuition, far from a being a fount of wisdom, can be polluted by the Karl Roves of the world, who know that irrational fear is the deepest gut feeling of all. Gerd Gigerenzer may be right to mock the man who writes out a list of a woman’s attributes before deciding to marry her, but one can only wonder how different things would be if America’s voters had been equally deliberative in 2004.

Stephen Amidon’s most recent novel is Human Capital (Picador).