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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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