Intuitive vs Nonintuitive decision making

This blog post summarizes Simmons and Nelson’ study about how people incorporate constraining/contradicting information into their initial intuitive thought when asked to make a decision. It was written in the context of the Intro to Cognitive Science class.

Intuitive Confidence: Choosing Between Intuitive and Nonintuitive Alternatives

Authors: Joseph P. Simmons (Princeton University), Leif D. Nelson (New York University)


People seem to favor intuitive options rather than equally or more valid nonintuitive options when taking decisions. This paper intends to explain how people weigh intuitive answers and nonintuitive alternatives that might oppose their initial intuition.

It has been shown that people often prefer to follow their intuition even when conflicting with other available information, leading to judgment biases. Simmons and Nelson review the relevant related phenomena such as transparency illusions, beliefs in explicitly false statements and other biases appearing at different levels of human cognition. It seems plausible that two distinct systems are competing, the first one being responsible for fast, effortless, heuristics and knowledge based decisions whereas the second system - much slower and resource-demanding - attempts to correct the initial judgment using available cues, rules and reasoning.

Some theories indicate that cognitive lazyness could prevent System 2 from kicking in and contributing to the decision. Others state that the sequential nature of the judgment process advantages the primity of the intuitive thought as System 2 has to falsify System 1’s conclusions persuasively. This phenomena is commonly refered to as anchoring and adjustment.

However, such models can’t extensively explain the observed proportion of intuitive biases among motivated reasoners who fully process contradictory information. Simmons and Nelson propose a so-call dual-process model that supposedly explains the observed phenomena and makes relevant predictions.

Simmon and Nelson’s model

The authors’s model relies on four hypotheses:

1) Intuitions are chosen more often because people hold them with high Confidence

2) The magnitude of an opposing piece of information matters for invalidating intuition.

3) People who are more confident about their intuition will follow them more often

4) People who betray their intuition are less confident with their final choice.

These rather natural hypotheses are then evaluated by the authors using predition of sporting events as a field case as it provides the experiment with the required variability of inputs magnitude and intuitive confidence.

The example of the football bookmaker point spread concept is demonstrated, attempting to explain how most people handle this question. In this case, the initial intuition will answer the question which team will win and the point spread serves as the constraining information where further reasoning should be involved. All four hypotheses can be nicely instantiated against this scenario and evaluated against historical data.

The following bullets summarize the result of Simmon and Nelson’s studies regarding the point spread example:


The main finding of this article seems to be that confidence in intuition is the most important factor influencing intuitive versus nonintuitive decisions. Countermeasures are proposed such as artificially altering one’s confidence against their own intuition. Another possible explanation is that people tend to answer a relaxed version of a question (in this case, who will win instead of who will beat the point spread), or sometimes even a different question (which team do you prefer).