Gut Feelings — The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gred Gigerenzer | A Book Review

The quality of intuition lies in the intelligence of the unconscious: the ability to know without thinking which rule to rely in which situation.

In some ways, at least superficially, Gred Gigerenzer does a balancing act on his books Reckoning with Risk — Learning to Live with Uncertainty in Gut Feelings — The Intelligence of the Unconscious. Whereas the first book dealt with more deliberate (slow) thinking and made elaborate case for using Bayes Theorem and probability rules, the second book talks about when and how gut feelings can steer our thinking towards ‘better’ decision. I read the two books in quick succession (and I do plan to read his book Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart — Evolution and Cognition). Despite his first book being a harder read (it is about deliberate thinking after all) and specifically focused on hospitals, screenings and administration of tests, I enjoyed it more. I’ll write a review for that soon. Gut Feelings — The Intelligence of the Unconscious is a breezier read. I finished it in 2 hours flat. I re-read some portions again though. The chapter titles in this book are just beautiful. The author/ editor combo has done really well on that.

Gut Feelings — The Intelligence of the Unconscious is basically about the short cuts human evolution has helped us to make faster and ‘good enough’ decision making. Most of the examples showcase how our unconscious and instinctual heuristic processes help us make sense in a world of ‘too much information’. An oft-quoted example in Cognition 101 books / courses like these are how German students can easily tell which is a more populous city — Chicago or Milwaukee. Greg also showcases where this can go wrong (students in San Francisco thought a fictional Chinese city was more populous than a town nearby). The power of default choices (and how this can be exploited), power of reframing and some basic probability is also discussed. One of the parts of the book I loved was where he demonstrated how human language is more powerful than logic using the word “and”. It is titled “Peggy and Paul”.

Greg also talks about morality in this book. In the book’s most poignant chapter titled “Morality”, Greg talks about how several Nazi soldiers still stuck around to go on a killing spree in a nearby village even when most had a clear aversion to do such a task. Why did they do so. This is the chapter that stayed with me. This chapter and the “Peggy and Paul” subtopic are in themselves worth the price of the book. There are several references to intuition in the book as well. He also talks about how male and female are equally intuitive debunking the myth of higher intuition in females. And finally, he speaks about how intuition doesn’t necessarily need to be logical. The final chapter talks about community and imitation. This chapter also has the best story/ anecdote in the book — about how the Berlin wall fell. Loved reading it.

Overall, I liked the book. It wasn’t very different from several books on the topic. And, if you’ve read Daniel Kahnemann or Rolf Dobelli, this would be a refresher. Even then, there are some interesting chapters and quotes that are worth it. I am going with 4 out of 5 for the book.

Favorite quotes:

“In general, cooperation pays, forgetting pays, and imitation pays.”
“Only part of the information is valuable for the future, and the art of intuition is to focus on that part and ignore the rest.”
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

About the Author: Gigerenzer is the director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany. He is author of several books on better decision making.

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