Hopelessly Irrational or Wonderfully Creative?

Warnings about biases should be balanced with celebrations of insights.

Posted May 31, 2013

Insights often appear magical, popping into our mind without any warning. New ideas are unexpectedly created. In contrast to controlled, logical thinking, insights don’t follow any formal rules for rational reasoning. 

This accidental quality of insights makes them exciting but it also makes them unreliable and untrustworthy. Proponents of rational reasoning and critical thinking tend to regard insights with suspicion —as a potential source of biases.

The field of heuristics and biases (HB) was started over 40 years ago. Originally, Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky just wanted to show that people use heuristics— simple strategies— for making judgments and decisions and didn’t behave in a perfectly logical way. Economists had assumed that people were rational and relied on perfect reasoning strategies but Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated that this wasn’t the case. People used heuristics.  Fair enough.

However, the field of HB has evolved into a gleeful collection of examples purporting to show that people are irrational. Books such as Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, Blind Spots by Madeleine Van Hecke, Think Twice by Michael Mauboussin, Sway, by Ori and Rom Brafman, and Everyday Irrationality by Robyn Dawes, go too far. We use heuristics because they generally do a good job. They’re not perfect but in a complex and uncertain world they get the job done. 

We would be immobilized if we only made judgments using perfect reasoning strategies. The conditions for perfect reasoning strategies aren’t often met outside the laboratory. Neither Bayesian statistics nor forms of deductive inference are very robust or very practical in natural settings. That’s why we have to rely on our experience and the heuristics we’ve learned. 

Unfortunately, too many researchers in the HB tradition continue to propagate the message that because we use heuristics, we are flawed. Even experts come under suspicion. The message is that we can’t be trusted to make important judgments. That’s a pretty depressing message 

What’s missing from the HB work is an appreciation for how smart we can be. How we can use our experience so well. And how we can form insights. 

Martin Seligman ushered in the field of Positive Psychology by suggesting that psychotherapists and other practitioners look for ways to promote happiness and well-being instead of just trying to reduce the miseries of depression, anxiety of neurosis. Similarly, I think we need a positive cognitive psychology that appreciates the sources of power people use to make sense of complex and dynamic situations. We need to take insights more seriously. Improving performance depends on reducing errors but it also depends on increasing insights. If we eliminate all errors we still haven't generated any new and innovative ideas.

I think that insights provide a complement to the HB worldview. Insights don’t arise through careful analytical reasoning. They spring to our minds unexpectedly. Sure, we have to worry about making bad judgments. But we also should celebrate our capacity for insights.