The Nobel Prize winner who busted intuition explains why we all still use it

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on human behavioral science. His book Thinking Fast and Slow is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how humans make decisions. His work on human intuition has shaped how we think about formal decision making and has helped usher in a new age in corporate decision making, where—some say—data are first and humans are second.

But in a recent discussion with organizational psychologist Adam Grant, Kahneman reveals that he makes most of his decisions based on intuition. It’s a fascinating insight to consider—the world expert on intuition’s failings relies on his intuition.

Kahneman is careful: he describes his intuition as “strong” but balanced by his natural contrariness—making him less susceptible to confirmation bias. He points out we need to distinguish decision making from judgment. Most of the failures characterized in Thinking Fast and Slow are failures of judgment rather than decision making. Importantly, he says that it’s not possible to make decisions without intuition.

I don’t think you can make decisions without them being endorsed by your intuitions. You have to feel conviction.


Kahneman’s insight is that intuition should be delayed. By the time an intuition is formed, people are no longer open to new information. Alternatively, be conscious of intuition and test it—as long as you can keep an open mind. “Unbelieving” is extremely hard,” says Kahneman.

But everyone loves to use their intuition. It’s fast, efficient and usually “good enough.” In the data age, it’s easier to update intuitions as machines and AI can help. It is important to be conscious of the role of intuition simply because it’s not going away and we need to use our data resources to make it better.

Why do leaders keep relying on intuition when they have so much data at their finger tips?

Because they don’t have an alternative. When they try to reason their way to a conclusion they end up confusing themselves. Intuition wins by default. It makes you feel good, it’s easy to do and it’s something you can do quickly. Careful thinking in a situation of judgment where there is no clearly good answer is painful. It’s difficult and it leaves you in a state of indecision, or in a state of even if one option is better than the other, you know that the difference is not something you can be sure of. Whereas when you go the intuitive route you end up with overconfident certainty and feeling good about yourself. So it’s an easy choice.


AI, and its resource, Big Data, are fundamentally inaccessible to humans. What an AI can compute and “hold in its metaphorical head” is beyond our cognitive limits. So we have this tension between how we prefer to make decisions—intuitively based on our experience of the world—and the resource now available to us—multidimensional data and powerful algorithms. 

If we can consciously recognize our intuition but delay using it until we have established meaning in the data, we can better access non-intuitive machine knowledge and our own deliberative thinking abilities. We can update our intuitions and get the benefit of efficient human decision making combined with the power of machines.

At Sonder Studio we have innovated on the decision making process to help humans use machines to update their intuitions, enabling us to have the best of both worlds—data and experience.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, in 2009. Photo by Eirik Solheim/Flickr/Creative Commons

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