Friday, July 13, 2007

The Seduction of Intuition

Thinking is a feeling.
--Joshua Clover

The question of intuition came up incidentally in response to a post and seems worthy of additional examination, if only because the power of intuition seems to undermine the need to think at all. It's the ultimate form of simplicity--the totally natural kind: intuition as an almost transcendental ability apprehend truth without any effort at all. In fact, from the perspective of the strongly "intuitive" person, thinking is part of the problem, getting in the way of our natural ability to "know." While the history of the intuition has been pretty shaky in business circles, it's definitely been coming on strong lately.

Malcolm Gladwell's Blink has provided some evidence for the power of intuition (though he actively resists the word himself) describing several now well-publicized examples of experts who can evaluate seemingly complex situations and relationships (marriages, a job candidate) in a few seconds.

And the question of intuition or instinct also came up at a Luxury Marketing Summit I attended recently in West Palm Beach. Many of the speakers (Ian Shrager I mentioned in a post below) spoke about intuition ("sensibility" was his preferred word) as a defense of taste as the only really arbiter of a luxury experience. Ian was particularly eloquent on the subject, disparaging attempts to standardize his efforts as a form of "brand creep." And who can doubt him: the guy's record (from Studio 54 to the Delano) is pretty amazing. It was clear, however, that many of the speakers were on the defensive, actively resisting the intrusion of more scientific marketing techniques into their previously rarefied realm. Many of the speakers hissed out the word "segmentation" as some unseemly practice best not mentioned at all.

I'd be the first person to defend artistic expression as the clearest form of intuition in action. And something like a pure expression of an artistic sensibility is probably necessary to create the highest level of luxury goods. It's the designers unique sensibility that gives them such high value. They shouldn't be standardized (and for that reason are often pretty small business considering how high profile they are in the culture)

And like most other planners I respect, I think a great creative idea can be tested to death (for the obvious reasons: consumers don't really know what they want, and the methods of evaluation suck). And I too get tired of submitting my intuitions to consumer testing.

But if I'm honest, and look back over my career, I'd say my instincts are wrong ALL THE TIME. My instincts were wrong about photographers and wrong about video gamers. I was wrong about grandparents and eight-year olds. I was wrong about what people think about insurance and dishwashers and George W. Bush. And I love being wrong because it gives me something to do.

Maybe I'm just really bad at this job, but it seems to me that anyone who is remotely involved in researching or analyzing behavior of any kind should be glad that intuition isn't adequate most of the time. Otherwise, we'd better pack it up.

I'm not suggesting that intuition doesn't play a role in our decisions. It's particularly important in evaluating creative, which needs to make you feel if it's any good. But the broad use of Gladwell to justify instinctual reactions strikes me as meretricious in the extreme. (Gladwell himself insists pretty strongly that these quick-judgments are in fact a form of thinking.)

As Barry Schwartz (of The Paradox of Choice fame) expressed it to me over cocktails at the same conference (I'm paraphrasing here): "The reason those experts are so good at predicting an outcome is because they have so much experience to base it on. They are quickly synthesizing vast amounts of data. Intuition isn't any good when you are out of your element."

Something to keep in mind when someone who knows nothing about a field tells you "it just doesn't feel right."

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