General Relativity and rational intuition

Having unburdened himself of the need to choose what to wear to work each day, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein was able to focus instead on the thorny challenge of developing his General Theory of Relativity, a challenge within which many important decisions needed to be made.

Blog 3 media einstein

Since Einstein was a theoretical physicist and a mathematician, most of us probably think of him as a very logical, rational man. Yet, on the subject of his work, Einstein wrote: “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.”

What roles should intuition and inspiration play in decision-making?

In the ELECTIA approach to decision-making, intuition and inspiration are considered just as important to good decision-making as logic and rational thinking, and the goal of the ELECTIA approach is to ensure that intuitive and rational thinking work together in a synergistic way.

In particular, intuition and inspiration are required for generating new options, i.e. for expansive thinking, while logical, rational thinking allows us to rule options in or out, i.e. it supports reductive thinking.

How can we best access our intuitive, creative thinking?

I have described previously our two thinking systems: System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is fast, effortless and unconscious, and it operates by associating different ideas, looking for patterns and relationships, and creating stories. It is from System 1 that our intuition and inspiration arise.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that System 1 is most able to generate intuitions and inspiration when we are relaxed and happy.  Here’s just one example. Take a moment to tune in to your emotions and then read the following two sets of three words:

salt          deep          foam

dive          light          lark

As your read these word trios, your System 1 detects that there is an association between the words, even before you identify exactly what that association is, and you feel relaxed and happy as a result. What are the associations? The three words in the first trio are linked together by the word “sea”, whilst the words in the second trio are linked together by “sky”.

Now, how do you feel when you read:

dream          ball          book

sleep          mail          switch

These word trios don’t have a word that links together the three words in the trio and you won’t have had the same sense of being relaxed and happy that you did when you read the first two trios. You may even have felt a little frustrated or anxious.

The researchers who studied the relationship between intuition and mood using these word trios found that not only does sensing a relationship between the words in the trio make us happier, but also that this relationship works the other way around as well, i.e. when we are happier, we are more likely to accurately sense, via our intuition, whether or not there is a relationship between the three words.

Similarly, other scientific studies have shown that people are able to generate more creative solutions to puzzles when they are relaxed and happy than when they are highly focused, stressed or anxious.

In “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes of the research that used word trios: “These findings add to the growing evidence that good mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility and increased reliance on System 1 form a cluster. [W]hen in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative, but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.”, and then also: “At the other pole, sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytical approach and increased effort go together. When we are uncomfortable and unhappy, we lose touch with our intuition.”

What are the implications of the results of this research for our decision-making?

Many of the important decisions that we are required to make occur when we are stressed or anxious; for example, someone in our family becomes ill and we must decide how to react. Also, we are required to make many decisions whilst at work, but our work environments are typically ones that put us into a stressed or anxious emotional state and a task-focused, rational and reductive mindset.

My personal experience is that most of my good ideas come to me while I’m in the gym. I therefore treat going to the gym not just as a workout, but also as an important opportunity to let my mind relax and wander, allowing creative, intuitive thought.

Looking at art and listening to music can also help to relax us and stimulate our intuition and creativity. It might seem inappropriate, but if you’re grappling with a big decision then take some time out to go to an art gallery or a museum, or to listen to one of your favourite albums. After all, art is all about inspiration.

Should we rely on intuitive thinking alone in our decision-making?

In his book “Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”, Malcolm Gladwell describes a number of scenarios in which people just knew that something was right or wrong. For example, from the book’s back cover: “An art expert sees a ten-million-dollar sculpture and instantly spots it’s a fake. A marriage analyst knows within minutes whether a couple will stay together. A fire-fighter suddenly senses he has to get out of a blazing building.

In each case, the individual made a correct decision apparently based on intuition alone. Are there times when making decisions that we should just trust our intuitive judgements and not worry about making a more conscious, logical assessment?

My answer to this question is: only if we are an expert in the subject of the decision that we are making and only if the decision is typical of the decisions that we would normally encounter in that subject area.

In each of the cases that Malcolm Gladwell describes, the person making the intuition-based decision is an expert in the subject. This means that they’ve had years of practice, trial and error, and, importantly, feedback on the outcomes of their past decisions, thereby allowing them to improve the accuracy of their decision-making, both rational (conscious) and intuitive (unconscious).

One aspect of the nature of our System 1 is that it will always provide us with a best guess based on the information that it has, and a second aspect of its nature is that is doesn’t provide us with an estimate of the likely accuracy of its best guess. In any and every situation, System 1 creates a story for us and asks us to believe that story. If we are not an expert in a particular subject then the story that our System 1 creates so quickly and effortlessly for us, our intuition, could be wrong, and if we don’t take the time to rationally assess our intuition using our System 2 then we have no chance of identifying any error that our System 1 might have made.

I therefore like to think and talk about rational intuition, by which I mean the rational use of intuition, i.e. using our intuition in an intentional way in the appropriate circumstances. The following simple flowchart shows the intentional and appropriate use of intuition described by rational intuition.

Blog 13 media flowchart

Think about the decisions that you usually have to make. For which ones might the use of intuition alone be appropriate? Which ones demand a more rational consideration?

Einstein was an expert within his field and so his intuition helped him to determine the “elemental laws” of General Relativity. However I think we can be certain that even Einstein didn’t just publish the first thing that popped into his head; instead he would have very carefully considered what his intuition was suggesting to him.

Greater use of our intuition and our inspiration to create new options and more use of our rational thinking to assess the validity of our intuitions is appropriate for many of the decisions that we take.

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