Learning, Feedback and Intuition

ROBINindexMy recent post Minimizing Diagnostic Error touched this subject, but this post will look at it in a more general way.  Feedback is an important part of learning and accordingly decision making.  Feedback can have varying levels of relevance.  Relevance depends on which measure is selected and then measuring it well.  Learning is further advanced if the consequences of error are greater.




learningstructureUntitledRobin Hogarth’s learning structure from Educating Intuition is presented adjacent. With relevant feedback learning should be accurate and not create false beliefs.  To be relevant even accurate feedback must not be slow or noisy or uncertain.  Hogarth calls the quadrant of irrelevant feedback and exacting consequences “wicked”. Decisions in this are both dangerous and confusing.  Hogarth provides the following example:

The physician enjoyed the reputation of a diagnostician, with a particular skill in diagnosing typhoid fever, then the commonest disease on the wards of New York’s hospitals.  He placed particular reliance on the appearance of the tongue, which was universal in the medicine of the day (now entirely inexplicable, long forgotten). He believed he could detect significant differences by palpating that organ. The ward rounds conducted by this man were, essentially, tongue rounds; each patient would stick out his tongue while the eminence took it between thumb and forefinger, feeling its textures and irregularities, then moving from bed to bed, diagnosing typhoid fever in its earliest stages over and over again, and turning out a week or so later to have been right, to everyone’s amazement.  He was a more effective carrier, using only his hands than Typhoid Mary.

The feedback that the doctor received was irrrelevant and the environment was exacting.  Hogarth’s “kind” feedback concept is not quite as clear although it seems to include areas with relevant feedback.  An anesthiologist would seem to be a doctor who generally receives relevant feedback in an exacting environment.  This should be effective for learning although with the consequences of screwing up being so high, I do not think “kind” would be an accurate description of the environment.  Meanwhile a pathologist would receive a lower quality feedback–less relevant feedback although in general it might be more lenient.  With Hogarth’s idea, it seems possible to locate different occupations or roles in what we might call learning space. I may try to do this in a future post looking at expertise.

In many respects this is a rehash of the scientific method.  Measuring the right thing accurately has led to much of human progress. Feedback seems so simple, but Hogarth makes the important point that you cannot learn in a wicked environment.

I have not noted that Hogarth created his learning structure paradigm in his book titled Educating Intuition.  The learning structure seems relevant to both intuition and deliberative thinking, but with intuition you are even more susceptible to the learning environment and feedback, because you cannot screen it as effectively as with deliberative thinking.

This flows rather smoothly into Hogarth’s evaluation of the trade-off between bias in tacit(intuitive) thought and the effects of analytical complexity in deliberate thought(analytical). Conceptually, I believe that large bias would correspond to a “wicked” environment with small bias matching up with a “kind” environment. Hogarth’s figure below divides up bias in intuition into large, medium, and small and divides up analytical complexity into easy, moderate, or hard.

In cell 1 where bias is large and analytical complexity is easy, deliberation is more accurate than intuition.  Hogarth’s example is the Muller-Lyer illusion. An intuitive judgment suggests that one line is longer than the other, but the deliberative step of measuring with a ruler, shows both lines to be the same length. In cell 3 there is no likely winner.  Hogarth uses the example a person making a complicated investment in an area where she lacks prior experience.  The result is not likely to be good, but which error will be greater?

In cells 4, 5, and 6 the learning environment is between wicked and kind, so deliberative thought should be preferred when complexity is easy. However, as complexity increases, the increasing probability of making errors in analysis eventually outweighs the bias and error built into the intuitive processes. Then in cells 7, 8, and 9, where the intuitive knowledge has been learned in a kind environment, it is at least the equal of analytic thought.  In cell 7, where the analytical complexity is easy,  both means should be nearly the same.

Hogarth notes that people can vary in their susceptibility to  bias in intuitive thought based on their learning history and expertise impacts the extent to which people perceive tasks as analytically difficult.  Thus, his framework could also be used to predict when and where people with different experience in specific domains would be advised to better trust their intuitions or analysis.



Hogarth, R.(2001)  Educating Intuition. Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press.

Hogarth, R.(2002) Deciding analytically or trusting your intuition? The advantages and disadvantages of analytic and intuitive thought. ICREA and Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona,Spain.

3 thoughts on “Learning, Feedback and Intuition

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