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Global Crisis Blog

Can We Trust the Intuition of Experts?

By Shlomo Maital

Nov. 10/2009


    An article in the latest American Psychologist, by Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein, addresses the key issue:  When can we trust the intuitive judgment of experts? [1]

    Kahneman is identified with the HB (heuristic bias) approach.  His work, some of it done with the late Amos Tversky, shows how flawed our judgment is and how non-rational our decisions often are.[2]  Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research.

    Klein is identified with the NDM (naturalistic decision making) approach, which chronicles often-amazing successes of intuitive judgment.  The article is an interesting dialogue between the two approaches, ending in “a failure to disagree”, i.e. broad agreement.

     Here is what the two scholars agree upon:

  • · An environment of high validity is a necessary condition for the development of skilled intuitions. Other necessary conditions include adequate opportunities for learning the environment (prolonged practice and feedback that is both rapid and unequivocal).If an environment provides valid cues and good feedback, skill and expert intuition will eventually develop in individuals of sufficient talent.

  Although true skill cannot develop in irregular or unpredictable environments, individuals will sometimes make judgments and decisions that are successful by chance. These “lucky” individuals will be susceptible to an illusion of skill and to overconfidence.   The financial industry is a rich source of examples.

    Let me translate.   If the ‘environment’ of decision-making is stable and predictable (i.e. that of a chess game),  experts develop startlingly accurate intuitive judgment.  Chess grandmasters, for instance, can choose the best move quickly in complex situations when amateurs fail to even consider that move.  But if the environment is unstable and unpredictable,  expert intuition is flawed.  True, such judgment will be right part of the time.  But this is solely through chance.   Those who ‘hit it’ by chance become overconfident, take excessive risk — and destroy their own businesses and the capital of others. 

      If “the financial industry is a rich source of examples” of flawed intuition,  then those enormous bonuses the industry is again paying itself are not justified.  Nor can we put our faith in investment advisors with superior rates of return over the past year.  Probably, an accident.   We can, however, better understand Warren Buffett’s surprisingly accurate intuition.  It is based on investing from the outset ONLY in stable environments, i.e. basic products like food, drink, machine tools or railroads, and holding on to the equities for decades.  

      Kahneman and Tversky once investigated the phenomenon of the ‘hot hand’ in basketball (streaks of baskets, without misses, by star players) and showed statistically that there was no such thing — it was simply random.  (Toss enough coins, and you will eventually get a dozen straight ‘heads’).   Why, then, do we still believe in ‘hot hands’ among financial advisors?   And why have they returned to paying themselves obscene bonuses? And why do we the people agree to it?   

       And finally, why in the world would anyone believe, in a world of overconfidence in flawed intuition in the financial services industry,  that the 2007-9 global crisis will not recur? 




[1] “Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree”,  American Psychologist, Sept. 2009.

[2] See S. Maital, “Daniel Kahneman: on redefining rationality”, J. of Socioeconomics, 2004.

      berlin wall dominos              Global Crisis Blog

Fall of the Wall:  20 Years Later

By Shlomo Maital


  As I write this, I am watching German Chancellor Angela Merkel on CNN, in a sea of Germans, speaking informally about the extraordinary events two decades ago — events she personally witnessed and took part in, when she, then a young scientist crossed from East to West.   Merkel chose not to create a formal diplomatic event with stuffy speeches, but simply stood elbow-to-elbow with thousands of Germans, some of whom had crossed with her on Nov. 9, 1989,  after symbolically crossing from East to West again, as she did in 1989.   Merkel thanked Mikhail Gorbachev, who was with her, for his policies that made the Fall of the Wall possible and eventually, on Dec. 25, 1991, led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  When Poland’s Solidarity movement won the June 4, 1989, election,  the Russian ambassador to Poland called the Kremlin in panic and asked,  what shall I do?   what shall we do?   Gorbachev had a simple answer.  Do nothing.  Let the election stand.   It was in part Gorbachev’s non-intervention policy that enabled the Wall to fall. 

     The Berlin Wall was erected in June 1961, after some 3.5 million Germans fled East Germany to the West.   The Wall had concrete walls, barbed wire, guard towers and a death strip that had anti-vehicle trenches, spikes and other types of defense.  Between 1961 and 1989 some 5,000 people tried to escape over the Wall;  an estimated 150 people died.

     Those most surprised at the fall of the Wall were the Germans themselves.  Most of them who witnessed the dramatic events of Nov. 9, 1989, said they never believed the monolithic German Democratic Republic would crumble so rapidly.  

     Today we know that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French Prime Minister Francois Mitterand were both worried and displeased by the fall of the Wall,  understanding that it would bring German reunification and create Europe’s largest and most powerful economy.    Indeed, unification came quickly.  On Oct. 30, 1990,   the new reunited Germany was announced.  West  Germany was in such a rush to implement the unification, that it offered to buy East German marks at a price of one such mark for a West German mark — at a time when the buying power was about eight to one.   The resulting flood of marks into the system caused inflation, led the Bundesbank to raise interest rates —  and ultimately, caused Britain to leave the European Monetary System, as the British wanted to free themselves from the straitjacket of high European interest rates and float the pound.  (On Sept. 16, 1992, George Soros’ massive sales of pounds caused Britain to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism).    So ironically, the fall of the Wall may have ultimately been responsible for keeping Britain out of the euro system.

     These events, from 1989 through 1992 and beyond, show how appropriate is the initiative taken by German students  to visually demonstrate the impact of the fall of the Wall.  The students created 1,000 styrofoam dominos, each three meters high, and placed them along the path of those who fled from East to West.   As one domino toppled another, we saw clearly how the Fall of the Wall led to a chain of remarkable events that forever changed history.  

    Congratulations to those innovative German students!



Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
November 2009