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Intuitive and analytical learning

There are two alternative ways to learn and solve problems: the intuitive system (or automatic) without awareness, and the analytical system (or reasoning). In the behavioral economics literatures, a distinction has been made between System 1 and System 2 mechanisms. System 1 corresponds closely to intuitive system or automatic processing, and System 2 corresponds closely to analytical (cognitive) or controlled processes. System 1 (intuition) quickly responds to problems as they arise, System 2 monitors the quality of answers provided by System 1 and sometimes revises or stops these responses. The followings are some of the key ideas about these two systems for better learning.

Our intuitive system favors the first impression, or the so-called Halo effect. It is the tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person (including things you have not observed). This bias plays a large role in shaping our view of people and situations. For example, in an interview you make judgments about the person’s management skills based on a good presentation, and avoid further information that might contradict your story. Of course, System 2 is capable of revising if new information comes in. But System 1 is insensitive to the quantity of information.

The analytic system (System 2) requires more mental effort and dislikes making things effortful on the mind. For example, a morning person tends to perform poorly in the evening, while an evening person does poorly in the morning. Why? Thinking is effortful in those times. Our lazy brain often follows the path of least effort. When we first encounter problems, our initial reactions are typically searching for easier solutions without having to use cognitive effort. In other words, we are under pressure to engage in shallow thinking (act foolish) For instance, a study on speed dating showed that when people have too many romantic choices, they tend to choose partners based on superficial physical characteristics, and ignore attributes such as education, smoking status, and occupation. However, with sufficient time to think, people are able to correct their intuitive response.

Our mood affects our thinking. Pleasant feelings make us respond more intuitively and reduce cognitive effort. In contrast, negative feelings focus the mind, leading to better concentration. When we are in a good mood, we become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to cognitive errors. A good mood makes us feel safe and it is all right to let our guard down. When we are in a bad mood, we lose touch with our intuition and rely on System 2. In cases of an immediate threat this is good, for it concentrates processing power upon the danger. When creative problem solving is required this is bad, for it leads to narrow, tunnel vision.

Intuitions are acquired through experience. As people acquire more practice in certain activities over time, responsibility for information processing passes from the conscious level to the intuitive processor. Knowledge becomes more and more engrained and automatic. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of expertise in any fields is the use of automatic processes such as visual imagery and categorization. New physicians faced with a common ailment consciously and carefully think about the checklist of symptoms before making a diagnosis, but experienced physicians “feel” the answer in an instant. Over time, such experts convert some of their high-level skills into gut-level processes that those experts cannot explain how they actually do those things.

This explains why cramming for final is a very bad way to learn something that will last. Information from cramming will come in and go out. One of the most effective strategies to enhance learning is to spread out the learning process. That is, spacing improves later recall, such as an hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, and another session a week from now. The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning. When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it. By distributing learning events, students can raise their level of knowledge without extending their time of study.

In sum, our lazy brains (analytic) attempt to economize and do things efficiently. For an educator or a speaker, this suggests that anything you can do to reduce cognitive effort will make your message more memorable (i.e., using simple language or intuitive explanation). People prefer things that are easy to process, because it helps them to allocate limited mental resources in a world with high demand on their attention. The ease of processing (known as cognitive fluency) makes things familiar and is associated with positive evaluations

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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