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Why Agile Minds Deploy Both Rational and Intuitive Problem-Solving

A rare aha moment in 2011 set me chasing new problem-solving research. The study Rational Versus Intuitive Problem-Solving: How Thinking ‘Off the Beaten Path’ Can Stimulate Creativity published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts stung me out of a spot of intellectual arrogance. From my perspective, John Dewey’s 19th century step-wise formulation of the rational problem-solving process, and its later adaptations, supplied the one and only, the best thinking process on hand. Rational thinking was king. Intuitive thinking was court jester. I was wrong.

The journal research validated the significance of an intuitive style of problem-solving thinking and proposed that individuals have a preference for either the intuitive or rational style. I definitely knew my preference. However, the “Off the Beaten path” lab study found that using both styles in tandem produces more creative solutions than using either alone. I felt my brain boggle.

About the same time, Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, came out, focused on two ways of problem-solving thinking labeled System 1 and 2, roughly equivalent to intuitive and rational. Each thinking style has strengths and weaknesses; factors that determine the type of problem best solved by each. For example, the fast, unconscious, intuitive style might work to determine what one word fits with the three words, park, volley, and boy to make three new words. A slow, conscious rational style might seem to work better to read an electrocardiogram.

Because of the differences and individual preferences for each style, competition reigns at times. When I spoke to a group of mid-life men and women about intuitive versus rational problem-solving, I discovered that bias ran rampant. Those who preferred the rational dismissed the intuitive style. “Far out there — somewhere,” often accompanied with a slight eye roll. The intuitive ones barely held back ho-hum sighs referencing the rational types. “Boring, limiting, no fun.” Men in the group comprised the majority of the rational problem-solvers; women the majority of the intuitive problem-solvers, a finding reflected in academic research also.

Alvaro Fernandez, founder of, says that he has believed for years that the intuition versus rationality debate is misguided. “It is not about one or the other: they each are valuable tools that we must learn to use in the appropriate context.” Noting the intrinsic reciprocal  influence between abstract thinking and emotions, Fernandez says, “What Kahneman’s work is really about is the cognitive and perceptual biases that prevent us from being ‘rational/ logical’ even when we think we are. In other words, many people, much of the time, have the illusion of rationality when in truth they are being nothing of the sort, simply following their biases, in an intuitive way, and believing they are being rational/ logical problem-solvers of the situation at hand.”

The final nail in my “rational problem solving is king” coffin arrived with The Agile Mind, by Wilma Koutstaal, Ph.D. Her conclusions about problem-solving thinking leap away from the starting line of intuitive versus rational. She demonstrates that highly effective problem solvers move rapidly and flexibly from intuitive to rational and back again and from specific to abstract thinking — and back again — regardless of what type of problem is addressed. Koutstaal quotes a study showing that untrained undergraduate students who were instructed to use both intuition and logic in reading electrocardiograms achieved levels of accuracy similar to those of 2nd year medical residents. “Mental agility is best promoted by equally valuing intuition and analysis — along with attention to detail and the big picture.” She soundly convinced this reader that the collaboration of intuitive and rational thinking keys problem-solving success.

A nimble, ambidextrous mind, dealing effectively with thinking, emotion, and action, might be a more envious asset than a flexible body and perhaps harder to achieve. Because the rational style of problem-solving is conscious, it can be learned in standard ways. The intuitive style however is unconscious, reliant on stored memories and loose neural connections over time, thus requiring a more random and patient process for acquisition. Especially by rational thinkers like me. Oops. I’ve got lots of work to do at the brain gym.

To Learn More:

– Judith C. Tin­gley Ph.D. is a for­mer psy­chi­atric nurse, psy­chol­o­gist, author of 4 pub­lished books, and free-lance writer, cur­rently work­ing on a book on how to break the neg­a­tive self-talk habit. You can fol­low her via Twit­ter@drtingley

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