Saturday, 16 June 2012

Intuition and Prejudice

“Assessments are based, not on whether the decisions made are any good, but on whether they were made in accordance with what is deemed to be an appropriate process. We assume, not only that good procedure will give rise to good outcome, but also that the ability to articulate the procedure is the key to good outcomes.” -John Kay
It could be argued that one of the principle differences between a novice and an expert is the degree to which experts are able to explain the reasons for any judgement made and to supply these retrospectively. But this begs a question: if experts make intuitive judgements – which they often do - then how can we be sure that these are not simply preferences dressed up in the trappings of deft argumentation?

A standard reply would go something like this: if the justification for an intuitive judgement stands up to rigourous debate or close scrutiny then we have no alternative than to accept the justification as valid. If such valid judgements are performed repeatedly then we need no further proof of expertise. Novices, on the other hand, are less competent in teasing out or debating their reasoning process and their judgements tend to be more inconsistent. So, even if a novice makes the same choice as an expert, we cannot say that they have exercised judgement, since judgement - in order to be judgement - needs to be justifiable.

But is this not simply an intellectual sleight of hand that surreptitiously places the quality of the justification above the quality of the decision? And whilst we may accept that instantaneous decisions are justifiable post-hoc, this still doesn’t answer the question of how such decisions can be made without calling upon resources that require far more time-consuming and considered deliberation. In other words: what is actually going on when judgements are made in an intuitive instant?

Dylan Wiliam writes of experts having what he calls “scripts” that allow them to make rapid decisions and improvise within their domain of expertise. He cites the work of Chase and Simon and their studies comparing expert and novice chess players. Chase and Simon found that expert chess players were significantly more accurate at quickly memorizing the positions of chess pieces placed in positions of actual games whereas they were significantly worse at memorizing the positions of randomly arranged chess pieces:
“Chase and Simon suggest that the much better performance of experts with ‘real’ chessboards stems from an ability to ‘read’ a chessboard in terms of a series of standard configurations of pieces that they have learnt through their experience as chess players.” 
Such expertise is the product of prolonged experience within a domain and cannot be acquired through shortcuts, formulae or crash-courses. Nonetheless we are all experts in the art of everyday life and the vast majority of the decisions we make are instantaneous and automatic. If pressed, we would have no difficulty in providing reasons for our having stopped at a red light. But can it be said that the background familiarity amassed by experts - us included - constitutes a form of criteria, or are criteria simply a means to externalize and make explicit what is essentially a tacit process that works in an entirely different way and therefore allows many decisions to be made intuitively rather than demanding deeper reflection?
"It is fairly clear that teachers acquire notions of ‘standards’ much more effectively when presented with actual samples of students’ work that exemplify the standards being promulgated than when given criterion-based descriptions of the standards. … I would like to suggest that the explanation of this phenomenon is that the grading of pieces of work with respect to a set of internal standards involves a far greater use of unconscious processing than has previously been acknowledged." -Dylan Wiliam
Psychologists, like Daniel Kahneman, distinguish between two kinds of decision making systems: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is roughly what we would think of as intuition. System 2 could be described as deliberative thinking:
“System 2 is the one who believes that it's making the decisions. But in reality, most of the time, System 1 is acting on its own, without your being aware of it. It's System 1 that decides whether you like a person, which thoughts or associations come to mind, and what you feel about something. All of this happens automatically. You can't help it, and yet you often base your decisions on it. […] System 2, on the other hand, is lazy and only becomes active when necessary. Slow, deliberate thinking is hard work. It consumes chemical resources in the brain, and people usually don't like that.” [my emphasis]
From the discussion so far it would seem that experts do not have sufficient time to formulate let alone deliberate over criteria in their intuitive judgements. This is not to say that they never pause to contemplate things more closely or even to reverse their initial judgements. They can and sometimes do. But what it does suggest is that criteria are not the primary tools of experts: experience is. By experience I mean the repertoire of exemplars that have been acquired through studying something closely – through comparing different instances and considering the relative merits of various examples, both good and bad. One nectarine alone would never be sufficient to furnish anyone with a clear idea of what constitutes a good nectarine. We need to experience a range of qualities of an experience in order to formulate an awareness of what might enhance it or detract from it, of whether the juice running down our chin is a sign of succulence or overripeness.

The point I’m making is that experts do not use criteria or deliberative thinking to form their initial judgements, instead they draw on experience and the more extensive this experience, the more well informed their judgements. However, an intuitive judgement, no matter how well informed, is not - strictly speaking - a judgement at all, but a pre-judgement; a pre-judice: an evaluation made without due consideration of the specific issues or circumstances at hand. It is a shortcut based on an unconscious repository of prior examples and is therefore limited to the known and familiar.

If the prevailing conditions in any situation that urgently demands judgement bear a close resemblance to previously encountered circumstances then it is obviously appropriate not to waste valuable time and energy logically weighing up the options.
“Intuitive intelligence is the ability to know directly, to perceive and appreciate whole or hidden patterns beyond (or faster than) logic.” -Tom Atlee (The Co-Intelligence Institute) 
But where there is no urgency, and especially where decisions impact on other people – students for instance – it seems prudent to be wary of the tendency to cut cognitive corners. As the research of Daniel Kahneman, Philip Tetlock and others increasingly shows (although it is not impossible to find exceptions), even the judgements of experts can be far from reliable, especially when making predictions about intrinsically complex and unpredictable domains. In the arts (which are well known for their unpredictability), as in other creative fields, intuition is frequently revered as a unique and often indispensable route to problem solving and discovery. But in arts education, where the judgements of teachers are directed not just towards artworks but towards individuals, too great a reliance upon intuitive judgement or gut-feeling risks undermining the putative integrity of academic assessment. And there’s the rub: what works for the production of art may well be at odds with its evaluation.

You might also be interested in the following article (Thanks to Tor for the link)


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