U shaped intuition

ushapedUntitledThis post is based on a paper by Amy L Baylor, “A U-Shaped Model for the Development of Intuition by Expertise.” that appeared in New Ideas in Psychology, in 2001. I am bringing her ideas up now, because they are important for my next post.  Although today intuition seems to have become unconscious thinking, Baylor saw it as closer to insight–far more special– in this paper. I notice this more because, I just finished reading Seeing What Others Don’t by Gary Klein which is about insight. Baylor’s questions are:  Does a more naive view of a field lead to greater new insights? Or does expertise facilitate one’s capability for intuition in a given field? How can both of these positions be reconciled?  It is interesting also that Baylor’s references do not duplicate authors that I have seen before.

Baylor argues for the possibility that the development of intuition follows a U-shaped progression where the level of available intuition starts at a relatively high level and then decreases and later increases with level of expertise. “Available intuition,” within a given subject area refers to the potentiality for intuitive thinking to exist at a given point in development of an individual’s level of expertise.

Baylor describes research on the interference of school on intuitive understandings. Fragmented pictures with increasing number of lines were presented to kindergartners, second, fourth, and sixth graders. Given increasingly more complete pictures, children were instructed to identify the picture as soon as possible.  The research found that the mean reaction times for the second graders were significantly higher than those of the kindergartners, fourth, and sixth graders. This suggested that students had a conflict of intuitive processes with the analytical processes as taught in school.

Expanding this developmental pattern, Baylor suggests that the development of intuition is
represented by the U-shaped curve shown in Figure 2. This developmental curve reflects the
progression of intuitive thinking processes as a person develops increasingly more advanced
knowledge structures in a specific area. The shape of the curve reflects the variability of general
intuitional availability. In applying the school results, the interference of school marks the downward trend in intuition level before returning to a higher level. Baylor proposes that a person is not only able to “just answer correctly again” once intuition levels increase but also s/he can make more higher order intuitive connections/understandings given a corresponding increase in expertise. This reminds me of fuzzy trace theory, in which there is gist-based intuition and verbatim based intuition. They do not develop in the same way.  In fact, there are development reversals in which biases increase with age.  Maybe second grade is a time where verbatim based calculation skills have been increasing more quickly than gist based. See post Development Stages of Intuition and Analysis.

In considering the left half of the curve in Figure 2, Baylor suggests that evidence supports the move from an immature intuitional understanding to a more analytical and less intuitional understanding. Intuitive understanding in the form of immature intuition may serve as a precursor for analytical understanding. Children use intuitive thinking as they explore and interact with the world. This increase in knowledge structures disallows immature intuition while enabling mature intuition. Correspondingly, a person loses the experiential freedom of immature intuition when s/he develops more analytical knowledge structures, moving to the center area in Figure 2.

An example cited by Baylor is research that describes musical intelligence as incorporating a progression of thinking processes. Specifically, the musical intelligence of an accomplished musician has two interactive components: the figural grasp of phrases, containing musical gesture and meaning, and the formal understanding of the fixed reference system associated with pitch-scales and metric grouping. Children without musical training frequently exhibit the former and often appear to lose their figural competence when they learn to read music.

The intuition on the right side of the U is accessible once a person has advanced knowledge structures. Master chess players have a more organized set of perceptual information. Since chess skill is dependent upon memory of chessboard patterns, better access to this stored information allows him/her (the master player) to come up with good moves almost instantaneously. Einstein describes mature intuition as he discusses his intuitive processing to a friend:

What I asked myself how it happened that I in particular discovered the Relativity Theory,
it seemed to lie in the following circumstance. The normal adult never bothers his head
about space-time problems. Everything there is to be thought about, in his opinion, has
already been done in early childhood. I, on the contrary, developed so slowly that I only
began to wonder about space and time when I was already grown up. In consequence I
probed deeper into the problem than an ordinary child would have done.

For Einstein, being “grown up” reflects his more advanced knowledge structures. Scientific
discoveries may require accessing mature intuition, yet in some cases immature intuition may be more beneficial than no intuition at all.

Klein, in his book, Seeing What Others Don’t describes a Triple Path Model for Insight that is set out below:


The Triple Path Model looks at some of the questions that Baylor asked surrounding insight.  Does experience get in the way of insights? Sometimes, on the creative desperation path, but not on the others. Should we keep an open mind? Yes, on the connection path, not on the contradiction path, which often calls for a skeptical mind. Should we expose ourselves to lots of swirl, lots of different ideas? Perhaps for the connection/coincidence/curiosity path, but not for the others. Is insight a matter of breaking out of an impasse? Yes, for the creative desperation path, but not for the others. Does incubation help? The evidence is mixed, but if incubation does improve our chances for insight. it may work in different ways for the three paths.


Baylor, A. L. (2001). “A U-Shaped Model for the Development of Intuition by Expertise.”
New Ideas in Psychology, 19(3), 237-244.

Klein, G. (2014). Seeing What Others Don’t-The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights. Public Affairs:  New York.

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