Fallibility of intuition

Published: February 22, 2014
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The writer is a researcher and an adviser to the Dutch government on public policy. He can be reached on twitter @mrsultan713

The writer is a researcher and an adviser to the Dutch government on public policy. He can be reached on twitter @mrsultan713

Social scientists often lament the hubris of lay people and policymakers who blindly trust their intuitions and gut feelings, commonly dubbed as the ‘conventional wisdom’. Economists and increasingly political scientists have constructed disciplining devices such as models, to keep our logic grounded in the face of complexity. The prominent British mathematician George E.P Box had said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. This is a deep insight. In my last article, I outlined how models make us see hidden social patterns. Here I demonstrate how models act as ‘thinking aids’ and help us reach counter-intuitive conclusions. To make my point, I will use a simplified version of the Granovetter threshold model and apply it in the context of participation in revolutionary movements to show one of the many utilities of models.

Instead of using highfalutin jargon and presenting models as a black box of esoteric mathematical complexity, I will explain one simple model.

I begin with agents or players. Here players are prospective revolutionaries who want to overthrow a government. Now, assume that the people join the movement only if there are other people also willing to join the movement. Each prospective revolutionary has a ‘threshold’ to join the movement. Now, consider two societies, say Afghanistan and Pakistan, where people with different thresholds (to join the movement) live.

For simplification, assume that there are only four people in each country. In Afghanistan, each person has the same threshold, i.e., each person will join the movement if one other person joins the movement. In Pakistan, on the other hand, the first person joins the revolt without any other person joining the movement (his threshold is zero), the second person needs one, the third two and the fourth person needs three other people to join the revolutionary movement. In which society will more people join this movement?

Notice on average, people in Afghanistan are ‘angrier’, i.e., require fewer people from its populace to join the revolt relative to Pakistan. Our intuition would let us believe that as the people in Afghanistan are more prone to join the revolt (as their threshold is lower) so a greater number of people will turn out on the streets of Afghanistan. In fact, this is not necessarily true when we carefully think with our model.

Notice that no one in Afghanistan will join the revolt as one person is required for anyone (and everyone) to join the movement. On the other hand, Pakistan will witness a cascade effect. The first person will require no other person to join the movement. Of course, there are many factors that affect people’s decision-making. We can, of course, accommodate very complicated relationships in more advanced models. However, the result of the model holds in more ‘realistic’ settings.

The main point to note is if peer pressure to join the revolt is present we can reach counter-intuitive outcomes which are not easy to explain without the aid of models. The results of the model opens up the real possibility that it is not just the average anger in society that matters but also the distribution of radical elements in society. It shows how only a few extreme elements can precipitate a domino effect and eventually engulf a large section of society. It explains why most ‘pundits’ could not predict the Arab Spring, the Orange Revolution or the Iranian Revolution.

The main point I would like you to take from this article are the limits of explaining complex phenomena based on ‘gut-feeling reasoning’. Models, though not perfect, act as thinking aids and help us reach conclusions which we might not think of otherwise. Next time when you are making a blanket claim on the cause and effect of a particular phenomenon, do not forget to humble yourself by remembering the fallibility of intuition.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2014.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • A
    Feb 22, 2014 - 3:08AM

    Insightful article! keep it up!

    Recommend

  • Basit
    Feb 22, 2014 - 4:07AM

    A weaker piece than the previous ones. The example given for Afghanistan and Pakistan are not well-developed. It suggests that an afghan will join if there is one other person joining but does not state that the other person has to join before, and not simultaneously as the first person. Second, if the pundits were not able to call the Arab spring or the Iranian revolutions, then was the author able to predict them with the aid of the models? If so, is that in writing?
    In terms of the conclusion drawn, models are important but not readily applicable to all situations; and intuition is important, though not suitable in every situation. They both complement each other. Without intuition, you will lose the strategy game and without models/verifiable facts, you will lose out on turning the thoughts of your intuition into results.

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  • Sunil
    Feb 22, 2014 - 5:39AM

    Very insightful and educative for a Pakistani Newspaper :P

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  • Sohail
    Feb 22, 2014 - 9:00AM

    great piece, perhapswe as a nation need to humble ourselves instead of making tall claims all the time.

    Recommend

  • LunacyAsailam
    Feb 22, 2014 - 10:53AM

    A nice article.

    Congratz

    from India.

    Recommend

  • Usman
    Feb 22, 2014 - 2:49PM

    “Next time when you are making a blanket claim on the cause and effect of a particular phenomenon, do not forget to humble yourself by remembering the fallibility of intuition” Powerful message!

    Recommend

  • Gohar
    Feb 22, 2014 - 6:21PM

    “Instead … presenting models as a black box of esoteric mathematical complexity, I will explain one simple model to make the point” Thank you for this :)

    Recommend

  • uma
    Feb 22, 2014 - 6:43PM

    Pakis here complain that paki news websites like tribune are full of indian trolls. But one of the positive reasons why indians visit this website is because of great articles like this one.
    Congrats to the author. Please keep writing & posting here.

    Recommend

  • Umar Uncle
    Feb 22, 2014 - 7:39PM

    @Basit, I think you missed the point of the article. The lack of a cascade effect in Afghanistan can be explained by how the person with the lowest threshold does not have anyone to satisfy his threshold. I think the point being made by the author should not be misconstrued because of the example he is quoting. Author clearly states that models are not perfect they are just better than intuition, and should be looked at while drawing conclusions (as you have mentioned).

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  • Asad Umar
    Feb 22, 2014 - 10:03PM

    Mr Mehmood I quite agree with the arguments presented that careful thought and rigorous understanding is needed to solve the complicated problems of Pakistan. We should indeed make our policies after research instead of just emotions and whims of our constituencies.
    Asad Umar Recommend

  • Feb 22, 2014 - 10:05PM

    @Basit:
    Think Modi. And it will solve all your problems.Recommend

  • Ayesha
    Feb 22, 2014 - 11:50PM

    “Notice on average, people in Afghanistan are ‘angrier’, i.e., require fewer people from its populace to join the revolt relative to Pakistan. Our intuition would let us believe that as the people in Afghanistan are more prone to join the revolt (as their threshold is lower) so a greater number of people will turn out on the streets of Afghanistan. In fact, this is not necessarily true when we carefully think with our model.” Brilliant exposition on the utility of models!

    Recommend

  • Imran Khan
    Feb 23, 2014 - 3:06PM

    @Asad, it is not possible to do research and make models in 90 days. We don’t need this complex nonsense, what we need is tabdeeli and we need it fast. People like Mr. Mehmood, are confusing people further by engaging in this sort of academic rhetoric. We humans are asharaful-makhlokaat and Almighty Allah has created us with the best brains, it is my faith and belief that if we apply our minds we can intuitively come up with solutions without going through this rigorous western inspired science. Please read Allama Iqbal Mr Mehmood, it will make you realize the power of your mind and intuition and hopefully it will diminish your bias for westoxified science.

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  • Dr Francesa Haswell
    Feb 23, 2014 - 10:01PM

    Thanks for writing the essay! I’ll mention it in my network economics class.

    Dr Francesa Haswell
    Leeds University

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