Should city planners trust their gut feelings?

I, like most people, trust my ‘gut feelings’ and ‘intuition’ for important decisions: friends, relationships, where to live, where to work and which bank to use!

I’ve been a transport planner for 13 years and in that time I’ve never seen any research about how intuition and ‘gut feelings’ could be used in urban and transport planning. Today in the Lab, under the theme ‘Communication and Participation in Cities’, we’re asking “Should we trust our ‘gut feelings’ to develop our cities?”

Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy in Berlin, former Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and award-winning author of popular books including Calculated Risks: How To Know When Numbers Deceive You, and Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, thinks we should.

According to Gerd there are rational decisions; where we analyse, write a list of alternatives, assess the alternatives, make calculations and then act, and then there’s the ‘unexplored territory’ our intuitions. Intuition is a judgement. It’s how we make decisions when not all the relevant alternatives, consequences and probabilities are known

So, how does an airport customs officer identify a drug trafficker in a crowded airport?  Gerd told us that the customs officers often say that when their eyes meet the eyes of a guilty person they just have a ‘hunch’ – they are looking for someone who is looking for them. It’s intuition

How does a male economist find a wife? According to Gerd one of his friends, an economist, was indecisive about which of his girlfriends he should marry so he made a list of all the alternatives and then a list of the consequences. He calculated the estimated probability of each relationship lasting, devised a rating formula and then undertook a mathematical calculation with the girl with the highest percentage being the lady whom he married. What happened? They’re divorced. That’s rational decision making.

So how often do large corporations and public institutions make decisions based on get feelings? Research and surveys have shown that only 50% of decisions are made on gut feelings. Gerd says that more often than not an organisation will ‘hire’ another organisation or consultants to produce a report – ‘defensive decision making’  – because they are afraid to use their own intuitions or ‘gut feelings’. It’s anticipated that 75% of commercial decisions and 93% of medical decisions are ‘defensive decisions’

Gerd says there are 3 ways to slow down innovation in our cities.

  1. Mistrusting our gut feelings
  2. Requiring national justification for every new idea
  3. Creating a culture of defensive decision making

So what does Gerd think we all need to do in to be ‘less afraid’ and use our ‘gut feelings’ in urban planning?

  1. Uncertainty – the best decision under risk is not the best decision under uncertainty.
  2. Simplicity – we don’t always need complex solutions for complex problems.
  3. Gut feelings – We need to let out intuition guide us rather than defensive decision-making processes.
  4. Less is more – good decisions require ignoring part of the information

Let me know what you think.