Divination as a Decision Tool: Can Superstition Help Us Make Better Decisions?

Meet Sally:

Sally is in terrible trouble.

Why? Well, Sally made some mistakes, and somehow (it’s always “somehow”) she’s ended up with two boyfriends:

I’d personally always go for the one with a beard…

The situation is turning ugly, and Sally has to pick a man.

How does she choose?

Sally reaches out to a well-educated business consultant, who (after Sally obediently wires several thousand dollars to his offshore account in the Cayman Islands) says,

“Make a table with two columns. Label the first column ‘Boy A’ and the second column ‘Boy B’. Then, write down all the reasons you like both of them. Afterwards, calculate the probabilities…”

Sorry, I fell asleep writing that.

What if I told you that Sally would be better off ignoring her consultant and flipping a coin instead?

“Oh great and knowlegable Coin, master of the universe…”

The above story, which I slightly modified, comes from German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer. Gigerenzer is a pioneering researcher in rationality and real-world decision making.

Nobody cares, says Gigerenzer, whether Sally’s coin lands on heads or tails. Rather, the coin flip is important because it trigger’s Sally’s inner voice.

From Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy:

If you are having difficulties hearing your inner voice, there is a much faster method: Just throw a coin. While it is spinning, you will likely feel which side should not come up. That’s your inner voice. You don’t have to make any complicated calculations to hear it. And you don’t have to bother looking whether heads or tails came up.

Sounds wacky, I know.

But let’s think about it. Let’s say Sally flips her coin and it lands on heads. Boy A, who wins the flip, shouts “Yeaaaaa!” and starts to run around the room, jumping, howling and pumping his fists.

Immediately — even before she finishes the flip, actually — Sally hears an inner voice whisper from deep within her unconscious. “Hey Sally,” says the voice, “You real, true love isn’t Boy A. It’s Boy B…”

This unconscious voice is an example of what Gigerenzer’s calls a “gut feeling” or “intuition”. And, contrary to what your professors might have told you, this gut feeling can be incredibly good at making decisions.

From Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious:

…deliberate thinking about reasons seems to lead to decisions that make us less happy, just as consciously thinking about how to ride a bike or put on a spontaneous smile is not always better than its automatic version. The unconscious parts of our mind can decide without us … knowing its reasons, or … without being aware that a decision has been made in the first place.

We’ve seen this again and again. When people choose among preferences (say, for movie posters or for bottles or wine), they enjoy their decisions more when they let intuition decide.

But it’s not just that.

The sophisticated method used by our Cayman Islands business consultant — what Gigerenzer calls “calculated intelligence” — often fails in the real world.

To list outcomes and calculate probabilities works when dealing with risk — that is, when all outcomes and probabilities are known. However, this method doesn’t work when dealing with uncertainty, which is something different altogether:

In everyday language, we make a distinction between ‘certainty’ and ‘risk,’ but the terms ‘risk’ and ‘uncertainty’ are mostly used as synonyms. They aren’t. In a world of known risks, everything, including the probabilities, is known for certain. Here, statistical thinking and logic are sufficient to make good decisions. In an uncertain world, not everything is known, and one cannot calculate the best option. Here, good rules of thumb and intuition are also required.”

So, in fields from stock market investing to geopolitics to warfare to, yes, your future marriage partner, the outcomes are not known and will never be known.

That’s when intuition comes into play.

Now, let’s move from coin-flipping to another wacky decision tool: divination.

“Shh, be quiet. The president is consulting the I Ching”

Paolo, one of my readers, wrote a fascinating post. Paolo suggests that we can use the I Ching — an ancient Chinese text used in divination — to help make better decisions.

In a simplified form, here’s how the I Ching works:

  • Sally has a problem
  • Sally generates a random number from 1–64
  • Sally looks her number up in the I Ching, and the I Ching gives her a confusing answer
  • Sally (in some cases) repeats the process to get another confusing answer that talks about how the future will develop

I installed an app to try it out, and here’s what my I Ching said:

THE ARMY. The army needs perseverance And a strong man. Good fortune without blame.

Yea… great. Thanks.

There’s more here than a skeptical mind might see. Here’s what Paolo writes:

[To make a difficult decision], I can use Balanced Scorecards, create a weighted matrix or one of the methods suggested in the technical literature.
The problem is that real life still makes you face problems that do not have a perfectly rational answer. Or maybe they have one, but some personal, deeply ingrained bias makes it impossible for us to see these. Or maybe it makes an alternative, no matter how improbable (and irrational) too compelling to be discarded. These situations are usually linked to moral or emotional elements, and there is no way to use a classical decision making process to come out of the quagmire.

The I Ching doesn’t predict the future. Instead, it gives you a vague, near-nonsense, cryptic answer that you have to try and figure out. And that’s why it works:

And why is this useful? [Your intrpretation of the I Ching] will make your own “hidden” bias come out in the open, and you will decide to do what you wanted to do in the first place.

Like the coin flip, the I Ching can activate intuition.

Now, an important question: When should we defer to our intuition?

“I’ve never flown a plane before, but I’m sure my intuition will save me.”

The point of this essay wasn’t really about Sally’s marriage or the merits of the I Ching. And I’m certainly not telling you to embrace superstition. Rather, I wanted to look at how intuition — which is often frowned upon — can help us make decisions in the real world.

With that said, it would be suicidal to rely on intuition all the time. Some things are better done with careful, conscious and deliberate thinking.

So how can we know which method — deliberate or intuitive — we should use?

Here’s Gigerenzer, again in Gut Feelings, with a clue:

Intuitions based on only one good reason [a form of intuitive thinking] tend to be accurate when one has to predict the future (or some unknown present state of affairs), when the future is difficult to foresee, and when one has only limited information. They are also more efficient in using time and information. Complex analysis, by contrast, pays when one has to explain the past, when the future is highly predictable, or when there are large amounts of information.

As always, thanks for reading.

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