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This title reminds us of that episode in Friends (there are so many memorable ones!) where Ross’s relationship with Rachel is on the rocks, because he just met Julie and he doesn’t know who to be with. Ross eventually decides to make, with a little help from the other boys, a list of reasons who he should choose (we won’t give away the outcome in case you haven’t seen the episode). His attempt at this ‘active experiment’ in logical, rational thinking to solve a problem mirrors Benjamin Franklin’s advice to Joseph Priestly, in which Franklin describes his ‘Moral and Prudential Algebra’ (there’s another letter in which he presents the same system to his nephew who found himself in similar circumstances to Ross):
To get over this [affair of the heart], my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.
And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.
Wishing sincerely that you may determine for the best, I am ever, my dear Friend,
Yours most affectionately
Is this really the best (or even only) way to solve a problem of knowledge? To gather all the available evidence and make a methodical calculation based on the evidential data? Most scientists would agree with this approach.
Not Gerd Gigerenzer, who argues that too much knowledge sometimes gets in the way of knowledge acquisition. Consider the fascinating ‘One million dollar experiment’ which yielded some very surprising results.
Imagine you’re on a game show and have to answer one question for the prize money of $1 million.
Which city has the larger population?
Detroit or Milwaukee?
Is Franklin’s Algebra useful here? Perhaps, but on what do you base your logical deductions? In a game show there’s nothing extra to guide your inferences (unless you can phone a friend.) Mostly, you have to make do with what you know and make a best guess.
When applying this experiment to a group of American and German students, the results were startling: virtually all the German students gave the right answer compared to only 60% of American students. What do you conclude? The Germans are just smarter? That the Germans knew more about North American city populations? No. In fact, the Germans knew next to nothing about Detroit and many hadn’t heard of Milwaukee. The Germans relied more on their intuition than on calculating reason.
If ‘passive observation’ means that decision making or knowledge building is a function of the more subjective ways of knowing or ‘gut feelings’, then Gigerenzer would agree. Indeed, he would go on to argue that our tendency to demonise emotive, intuitive and imaginative approaches to knowledge is to our detriment. Offering some insightful experimental data, Gigerenzer points out that much of human life, especially decision making, is startlingly intuitive and it’s this that makes us a successful species. He calls this the ‘intelligence of the unconscious’: how the human mind is often guided by simple rules of thumb, rather than complex calculations to solve the problems we face in life. We seem to have forgotten our intuitive selves, having been brainwashed most of our lives with Aristotelian binary logic and the Enlightenment focus on reason...