a System of Intuition and Reasoning

In listening to Daniel Kahneman talk about intuition I get the sense that he’s an advocate for developing an environment that accepts intuition as a fundamental feature of human behavior, and accommodates its flaws and strengths.

Kahneman, and other cognitive psychologists, describe a two-part process of thought involving intuition and reasoning.

System 1 (intuitive) is: fast, automatic, confident,, parallel, effortless, associative, slow-learning, and emotional.

System 2 (reasoning) is: slow (it doubts and deliberates), serial, controlled, effortful, rule-governed, flexible (it can be taught/can learn), and (emotionally) neutral.

According to Kahneman we are governed by System 1, it works sub-consciously as it responds to changes in our environment automatically, confidently, (doubt and deliberation are not features of System 1) and emotionally. When it works well it provides fast and useful impulses along with a rational and useful network of coherent associations. When it doesn’t work well it provides fast, confident, impulses and irrational yet coherent associations for the reasoning mind (System 2) to work with. System 2 works with, deliberates on, whatever it’s fed from System 1, so if the information/associative network is bad, our subsequent decisions are flawed – the speed, confidence, and sub-conscious nature of System 1 makes training it very difficult – Kahneman points out that System 1 seems actually resistant to learning – resistant to a change in direction of stimulus from the perceptual/nervous system to a dialogue with one’s reasoning mind. Training System 1 is possible, however.

Skilled, intuitive chess masters or violinists may spend upwards of 10,000 hours of practice in order to cultivate (train) their intuition. Cultivating intuition is labor intensive, and requires more than a time commitment, Kahneman points out that successful training of System 1 also requires quick and unequivocal, reliable feedback. Cultivating one’s intuition for chess or music, for example, can be successful as both of those areas are highly understood and highly rule based – hence the feedback one receives from interaction with those processes can be unequivocal and reliable. Put another way, System 1 responds to interactions that are similar to its own tendencies. These conditions are not often met, and the result is flawed intuition and flawed reasoning – we often fall victim to the law of small numbers, for example, i.e., making a law or governing principle based on a brief experience.

Most of us, it seems, are slowly training our intuitive minds by persistent interactions with the environment., many of which are less than optimal.

This seems to be an opportunity for artists and designers, doesn’t it? Obviously some of us have been exploiting these cognitive tendencies for a long time – think about advertising, product, and commercial interior design. The perception-to-System 1-to-System 2 paradigm seems to make the world present itself to us one problem at a time (the serial nature of System 2 – we are most aware of the last thing that happens, and in this process that’s the reasoning of System 2), and seems to make it difficult for us to draw critically and deeply on past knowledge to solve these immediate, present problems and dangers – Kahneman calls this Narrow framing and I wrote about it here two weeks ago.

It occurs to me that environmental elements are participants (silent partners, really) in the decision making process, and those whose job it is to make things and arrange environments, and those who care about building knowledge and improving our conditions may benefit from a point of view that includes an understanding of the psychology of interaction, and a respect for just how much the things we live with matter.

Knowledge, as Piaget noted a long time ago, is operative. Kahneman and his colleagues have expanded and described our understanding of perception, intuition, and cognition by experimentation and observation in a way that makes an enhanced critical dialogue and practice surrounding art, design, and interdisciplinality possible.
In an interview following his recent talk at Berkeley, Kahneman, in response to a question about decision making within the System 1 and 2 paradigm, had this to say:

Q: You say that skills are acquired in an environment of feedback and opportunity for learning in a social network. That would help us understand what makes it possible for [professional intuition] to be [successful].

A: They think about situations a lot and they talk about things a lot, so they develop models of various kinds of files. They don’t have to experience — you know, we are capable of learning a great deal from simulated experience. Even athletes can learn from simulating things in their minds, and they do: they practice a lot at night without doing anything. This is one piece of machinery that we dispose of. It will not help you in certain domains; it’s not something that a CIA analyst can do, because the systems that they deal with are fundamentally more complicated.

Q: Which raises the interesting question of how groups can learn from their own experience. Your work is related to decision making in the marketplace, and in a minute we’ll talk about your article in Foreign Policy. In those cases, what is the difference when you have institutions and groups that would like to correct these kinds of errors?

A: Well, in the first place, my main observation would be that groups, by and large, do not correct errors. That’s [from] recurrent observations. There’s a lot of lip service paid in organizations about improving the quality of our intelligence and the quality of our decision making but I think it’s mainly lip service, because imposing a discipline on decision making, as I illustrated by my example of the book — you know, I don’t want to impose discipline on my decision making, and the leaders of organizations — civilian and governmental and commercial — don’t like to be second-guessed. It’s the rare leader — [although] there are very salient examples; the Cuban missile crisis is the example that people think about, where President Kennedy developed a deliberating team that was superbly efficient in allowing dissent and in allowing ideas and slowing down the process of decision making to a rate that was appropriate to the complexity of the situation. That’s very rare.

“…President Kennedy developed a deliberating team that was superbly efficient in allowing dissent and in allowing ideas and slowing down the process of decision making to a rate that was appropriate to the complexity of the situation.” I think that’s a brilliant and intriguing observation, and find myself how one might design an environment so that the rate of decision making is more often appropriate to the level of complexity of a given situation.

Here’s the interview quoted above – and, again, this is a companion event to the Kahneman’s lecture linked in the previous post. Oh, and enjoy the intro music…



last week in class we looked at the cognitive psychology effect called priming

here’s a definition:

Priming refers to a increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience. Because priming it believed to occur outside of conscious awareness, it is different from memory that relies on the direct retrieval of information. Direct retrieval utilizes explicit memory, while priming relies on implicit memory. Research has also shown that the affects of priming can impact the decision-making process (Jacoby, 1983). about.com

our decisions and behaviors can be subliminally influenced as we respond subconsciously to environmental stimuli.

the wikipedia entry goes into much more detail, and gets into perceptual vs. conceptual priming, and more.

John Bargh, currently of Yale, is considered a pioneer in the field:

below is Derren Brown’s subliminal advertising project, (we also watched this in class) – he gets into detail about how this worked at the end, he has another elaborate priming scheme featuring Simon Pegg, too – but that one occurs in very much of a lab setting – the one below uses priming elements embedded in the outside world, and based on my previous post, it’s a bit more interesting:

here’s an excellent lecture by Daniel Kahneman where he gets into priming, intuition, associative coherence, anchoring, system 1 and system 2 cognitive processes, and framing. the lecture is preceded by a lengthy introduction, and the ideas about priming begin around minute 20.


we also watched these short videos of Brian Wansink’s experiments into mindful (or often mindless…) eating. i think you’ll see the connection with the videos above – two quotes of Wansink’s that come to mind are, “do you think you’re smarter than a bowl?”, and, “the best diets are the ones we don’t know we’re on.”



to me, priming effects (and their related associative coherencies, coupled with the ways we seem to process them) are interesting because they demonstrate how persistently sensitive to, and dependent on our environment we are – just like any other animal on this planet. the conscious mind is one feature of our experience but, it seems, is not in any way the predominant, controlling influence some of us seem to believe it is. as an artist, designer, and thinker i find this work inspiring as it opens the doors to increased learning by making subtle changes to the environment that amount to asking it questions. i feel that i want to understand these phenomena better, and i feel that increased understanding can be developed by, in reference to my previous post, observing the natural experiments going on all around (and within me), and developing methods appropriate to my environment (the “field”) to reveal its features in greater detail. in short, i find Kahneman, Bargh, et al opening the door to field research, actual research, utterly appropriate to what artists and designers have always done – namely, building things (including making gestures) and placing them in given environments.

here’s a quote by Daniel Kahneman from an EDGE master class (this excerpt is near the end):

…We are all aware that our behavior and our thoughts and feelings are highly context-dependent: none of us is quite the same person at home and in the office, in bed or in the subway. We are used to the context-dependency of our behavior and we have stories that make sense of it—social pressure, norms etc. What we are learning from the priming-anchoring effects is that context-dependency is mediated in part by multiple subtle cues of which we are not necessarily aware. The effect of pictures of eyes on contributions to the honesty box illustrates this. People were barely aware of this contextual cue and had no idea it had a large effect on their behavior—they were responding pretty much as if they were under observation. The example shows that it does not take actual fear of social sanctions to make us behave in a manner that would be appropriate in a truly social context. I believe that if you consider the factors that govern our adjustments to the contexts of our lives, the suggestive effects of primes and anchors should become less mysterious.

The novelty of the recent priming literature is in something that I called “Associative coherence” or “the poetry of priming”. The characteristic of our responses to stimuli (I believe I used the word VOMIT as an example) is that they are coherent—the entire associative machinery (including the autonomic and skeletal responses that the machinery controls) seems to be reset for a new context. We are more alert, we are prepared to recognize stimuli that are predictable (in a Bayesian sense) in the new context, we are ready to escape etc. This coherent response makes a great deal of sense in an evolutionary context. The fact that some associations appear bizarrely symbolic (e.g., to notions of distance or reminders of money) makes sense in the context of theories of “embodied cognition”, which trace some of the concepts people have to early experiences, e.g., of social and physical distance or of the difference between situations in which money and exchange are or are not relevant).

Finally, let’s look at the importance of the phenomena. Perhaps wrongly, I read Nathan as proposing that the effects are either extremely powerful or negligible, and my response was that they are somewhere in the middle. I find it helpful to think of behavior as a choice of values along multiple continua (e.g., of friendliness, wariness, effort, driving speed, etc.). At any one time each of these features of our behavior and mental state can be represented as an equilibrium, which is influenced by multiple forces, some of which are internal (habits, intentions, stored knowledge) others drawn from the context. We are not specifically aware of all these forces (any more than we are fully aware of what determines our choice of speed on a winding road), but they are at work, and priming is one of the ways this comes about.

observing natural experiments and applying methodologies appropriate to the field

Last week Guna Nadarajan, Vice-provost for research at MICA, gave an interesting talk to the faculty and mentioned that research, especially in the US, is not something most artists and designers feel comfortable with, or even able, or qualified to do.

I found this lecture (below) by Jared Diamond on, among other things, applying science to history, and I find this excerpt particularly interesting as mentions applying research methods suited to the field, not the lab, to gather information and increase knowledge.

Diamond talks about observing and comparing natural experiments – which I take to mean observing one’s environment closely and realizing that various events and variables are consistently interacting within the field without being governed, or prepared by a scientist. By comparing these naturally occurring experiments, Diamond argues, research is possible without laboratories or people in white coats.

The idea of developing methods appropriate to the field for increasing knowledge is very appealing to me as it encourages an empiric point of view – a heightened sense of critical awareness for events that are occurring all around us. Adopting a scientific approach to these events, i.e., developing a theory about them and then testing that theory by action and observation within the world at large seems to me something well within the capabilities of any artist or designer, and involves a practice of engagement with the world that is participatory, critical/skeptical, and based on what amounts to asking questions of one’s environment rather than prosecuting a specific argument through it.

I have seen a lot of art and design work lately that is built for the field but seems to lack any criticality, but that’s a subject for another post.

Here’s the Diamond quote:

Laboratory scientists such as molecular biolgists, and chemists, believe that science is something that has to be carried out in the laboratory as replicated experiments with controls. And can only be carried out by people wearing white lab coats. And that anything not involving replicated experiments carried out by people in white lab coats is not science, it’s just unprovable speculation. And yet the fact is that there are fields of science, that everyone acknowledges as sciences, historical sciences, in which replicated labratory experiments carried out by little people in white coats would be immoral, illegal, or impossible.

For example, everybody acknowledges that Astronomy is a science, although we cannot turn off particular stars, and then maintain other stars constant as controls. And everyone acknowledges that Geology is a science, even though we can’t stop and start the flow of glaciers, and turn on and off ice ages. And everyone acknowledges that Paleontology is a science, even though we cannot create 78 different kinds of dinosaurs, to compare them. And everyone acknowledges that Evolutionary Biology is a science, even though we choose not to exterminate different kinds of bird species in order to see the consequences of exterminating those bird species and yet all these areas, these historical sciences, sciences that involve a historical component have succeeded in obtaining knowledge not by laboratory experiments by little people in white coats but by methods appropriate to the field, namely, and especially by what is called the comparative method involving natural experiments.

People, scientists in the historical sciences resort heavily to comparisons of experiments of nature, that is to say, taking what nature gives us and comparing those different, natural experiments.

the quote above begins a few minutes into the video below: