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Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious Paperback – June 24, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Gigerenzer's theories about the usefulness of mental shortcuts were a small but crucial element of Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller Blink, and that attention has provided the psychologist, who is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, the opportunity to recast his academic research for a general audience. The key concept—rules of thumb serve us as effectively as complex analytic processes, if not more so—is simple to grasp. Gigerenzer draws on his own research as well as that of other psychologists to show how even experts rely on intuition to shape their judgment, going so far as to ignore available data in order to make snap decisions. Sometimes, the solution to a complex problem can be boiled down to one easily recognized factor, he says, and the author uses case studies to show that the Take the Best approach often works. Gladwell has in turn influenced Gigerenzer's approach, including the use of catchy phrases like the zero-choice dinner and the fast and frugal tree, and though this isn't quite as snappy as Blink, well, what is? Closing chapters on moral intuition and social instincts stretch the central argument a bit thin, but like the rest will be easily absorbed by readers. Illus. (July 9)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Trust your hunches, for intuition does have an underlying rationale, according to this accessible account from a German scientist of human cognition. Permeated with everyday scenarios, such as picking stocks, schools, or spouses, the book adopts an evolutionary perspective of how people act on the basis of incomplete information (usually successfully). He sets the table with an example of a baseball player pursuing a fly ball, who relies not on conscious calculation but on an evolved "gaze heuristic" to make the catch. Definitions of such rules of thumb dot the text, which Gigerenzer embeds amid his presentations of studies that indicate, for example, that financial analysts don't predict markets any better than partially informed amateurs. Explaining this as an outcome of a "recognition heuristic," Gigerenzer argues that knowing a little rather than everything about something is sufficient to take action on it. He forges on into medicine, law, and moral behavior, succeeding in the process in converting a specialized topic into a conduit for greater self-awareness among his readers. Taylor, Gilbert --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Since I find his scientific works most intriguing, I think that this specific book is apt to be most interesting for readers. It deals with a subject relevant to the recent best seller "The Black Swan." It makes for a nice comparison to read both volumes. Both authors speak to the poor record, for example, of stock analysts in predicting what stocks do well and what do not do well. However, their analyses march in different directions.
The dusk jacket notes the central focus of the work: "How does intuition work? What lies behind our moral behavior if not reflection and reasoning? How can simple `rules of thumb' help amateurs beat the stock market, outfielders catch a fly ball, parents choose a school, or lovers choose a mate?"
The main argument of the author is that the evolutionary process has led humans to develop "rules of thumb" or "heuristics" that tend to lead to efficient decision making processes. Does statistical analysis give better results than heuristics? Not necessarily, says the author.
What are these "shortcuts"? For instance, what if you are in a decision making situation and you need to respond to someone who may cause you problems or cooperate with you? The evidence suggests the value of a specific game with rules. As Gigerenzer puts it (page 62):
"(1) Cooperate first, (2) keep a memory of size one, and (3) imitate your partner's last behavior."
In plain English: If you are in competition with someone, at first cooperate. If they cooperate, you would continue cooperating. If they double cross you (don't cooperate), retaliate. Over time, according to a variety of studies, this works better than always double crossing people or always cooperating.
Other heuristics: "Take the first." That is, if your first cue suggests one decision over another, go with it, even if you are ignoring other information. If there is no advantage on the first cue, go to a second one. If one option is better, go with it. In short, satisfice; select the first option that seems to work. Others are discussed as well.
The book seems to digress a bit when it gets to moral behavior and social instincts.
Nonetheless, a thought-provoking work that is accessible to interested readers. Well worth looking at.
So why not five stars?
Because the book peaks in the first two chapters as Gerd Gigerenzer (truly one of the all-time great author names) very clearly explains his insight to you using the fascinating concept of how humans catch a fly ball. (Hint: it isn't by doing all sorts of subconscious calculations about speed and trajectory)
From there on out, it's just one example after another of the same concept. By chapter four, when new examples get introduced, you're already projecting out exactly how people traditionally view it and how Gigerenzer's research shows things actually work. The good news is that shows Gigerenzer is a good teacher; the bad news is that the book is clearly too long.
So I'd highly recommend this first two or three chapters of this book to learn about Gigerenzer's very interesting, counter-intuitive and well-explained insight. As soon as you feel like you get the idea, though, I'd move on to your next book - you won't be missing any new ideas.
Gigerenzer points out that the standard rebuttal is wrong. A baseball player couldn't hope to gather and process all the information about the flight of a ball in real time, even approximately. Instead they use what he calls the gaze heuristic: 'fix your eyes on the ball and adjust your running speed so that your angle of vision to the ball remains constant.' The interesting thing about the gaze heuristic is that it ignores virtually all of the information about the ball's flight and focuses on just one piece of information: your angle of vision relative to the ball. But that single piece of information is enough to reliably let people catch a ball.
That in a nutshell is the concept of bounded rationality. Once you factor in the cost of gathering and processing information it becomes extremely irrational to make decisions by solving differential equations. Heuristics (AKA rules of thumb) are the way to go. They give you a lot more bang for your information-processing buck. Here is the truly radical part of Gigerenzer's book. If you were to simply claim that heuristics allow people to make decisions that are almost as good on vastly less information then I doubt many modern social scientists would disagree. But in fact Gigerenzer shows that heuristics can outperform the information-greedy favorites of the social sciences like multiple regression analysis and neural networks with back propagation.
Another really nice thing about this book is that Gigerenzer is a very good writer with a very light touch. You will not find the heavy and ponderous writing that you normally expect from scholars. This book is an easy and fast read that belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in politics and the social sciences. You may also want to consider The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences (you can easily and profitably skip over the math).
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