A baby at an infirmary suddenly turns blue. Within seconds, a nurse has a diagnosis and a potential action. In this case, the nurse thinks the baby has a pneumopericardium, which means the sac surrounding the baby's heart is inflated with air, and the resulting pressure detracts from the heart's pumping of blood. There is a problem with this diagnosis, though. The electrocardiogram is showing a healthy 80 beats per minute. If nothing is done, the baby will die within a few minutes. The doctor walks into the room to find the nurse screaming for silence and listening to the baby's heart with an stethoscope. She is now sure of her diagnosis, and she gives the doctor a syringe: "stick the heart, it's a pneumopericardium, I know it". Given the electrocardiogram, other nurses are skeptical, until the x-ray operator screams out: "she's right!"

Her intuitive diagnosis saves the baby's life.

Here is a first question: What is intuition?


Here is Thomas Schelling's, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, tax proposal: In 1981, US income tax laws allowed families to deduct US$1000 for each baby. That amount was always fixed, independent of the wealth of the family. Schelling proposed that richer people should have larger deductions; they surely spend lots more on their babies. Would you agree with this proposal?

Perhaps not, right? After all, as the argument goes, “There is no reason to extend further privileges to the rich, and certainly not at public expense”.

But now, consider this scenario: Suppose the taxes were reformulated; and instead of having a tax deduction in relation to childless families, how about a “childless premium” being added to a tax schedule based on ‘regular’ families with, say, 3 kids? If childless families have to pay premium taxes, why should very poor people pay the exact same amount as billionaires like the Rockefellers, who can pay orders of magnitude more? Why shouldn’t the Rockefellers pay more?

Do you fall prey to the contradictions involved in these distinct formulations of "the same" problem? If so, why?

So here is our second question: How do humans make decisions?


The Cuban World Chess Champion Jose´ Raoul Capablanca
once remarked about his personal, subjective, experience: ‘‘I know at sight what a position contains. What could happen? What is going to happen? You figure it out, I know it!’’ In another occasion, talking about the numerous possibilities that less-skilled players usually consider on each board position, he bluntly remarked: ‘‘I see only one move: The best one.’’ Was he being arrogant? We do not believe so; in fact, we think he was telling us an important fact about (expert) human psychology and decision-making.

And here is our third question: How do we face complex strategic scenarios?


How do people make decisions? By reasoning or by intuition? What is reason? What is intuition? Can they be explained scientifically? Why does the behavior of Homo economicus, the hallmark of game theory, deviate from that of Homo Sapiens sapiens? How do we process information? How do we think about issues? Which psychological mechanisms enable us to do such? Which psychological mechanisms blind us from better decisions?

Despite a number of surface differences, there is an underlying phenomenon common to all of these decisions. In all of them, the decision maker does not seem to have behaved in the way the classical rational agent postulates; i.e., comparing & evaluating a large number of potential courses of action. It seems that these decisions have all been taken at the time the problem was perceived. We postulate that this mode of decision-making is the most common course of action taken by humans. The current doctrine in Economics, Management Science, Operations Research, and Artificial Intelligence postulates that first, one perceives a problem. Afterwards, one searches for a solution in a space of possibilities. Our proposal of intuitive decision-making inverts this ordering, by obtaining a diagnosis and a course of action at the time of perception of a problem. We propose that from the nurse's rapid response to the chess master's plays, there is an underlying process of decisive intuition. We are studying this process in scenarios as distinct as chess, economics' game-theoretical models, political decision-making, speed dating, and others.

The word intuition on our title is our small claim to fame here... while economics, cognitive science, (a great deal of) psychology, computer science, and management science practically ignore this unscientific, hippie, new-age, esoteric term, it is our intention to shed some light into it and perhaps even throw some scientific respectability to this dismal of words. For the skeptics in there, who might think that this talk about intuition in decision-making is not to be taken seriously, you might want to take a glimpse of it in action. Here are two top grandmasters, Maxim Dlugy and Hikaru Nakamura, battling it out in a 1-minute blitz game after the U.S. Championship. [International Master Ben Finegold comments on the side.]

...aaaand black resigns.

Now, what do you think these Grandmasters were thinking?

Capablanca made perhaps the best remark, ever, about human intuition. While mentioning that other players tried to look ahead and see many moves in the evolving game, Capablanca assured us: "I see only one move. Always the best one."

Capablanca didn't bother to think through many alternatives, his gigantic, unique, experience in Chess enabled him to just "see the best move." If you think that was just plain arrogance and did not correspond to psychological fact, consider this: Ron "Suki" King, a world checkers champion, played in 1998 a simultaneous game against 385 opponents. He beat them all. Now let's make some calculations. Supposed he thought for two seconds in each position. A mere two seconds; time to look at it, have an initial idea, then make a movement. That gave each of his opponents 12 minutes and 30 seconds to consider the reply. So if you think that Capablanca was not telling the absolute truth about his own thought process, we'd love to hear an alternative explanation for the powers of Mr King. 

So, again, what do you think these Grandmasters were thinking?

Interested?  We are. These thought processes are precisely what intrigues us.  We hope you'll join us for a journey into the nature of human intuition.