Problem Solving Thinking — Intuitive Thinking is “In” for Intelligent Women

I wrote this article below for sharpbrains.com, a favorite web-site, in May so I thought I’d pass it along to readers of intelligentwomenonly.com, to eventually be followed by more innovative thinking about thinking by Wilma Koutstaal author of The Agile Mind.



A rare aha moment in 2011 set me chasing new problem-solving research. “Rational Versus Intuitive Problem-Solving: How Thinking ‘Off the Beaten Path’ Can Stimulate Creativity” in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts stung me out of a spot of intellectual arrogance. From my perspective, John Dewey’s 19th century step-wise formulation of the rational problem-solving process, and its later adaptations, supplied the one and only, the best thinking process on hand. Rational thinking was king. Intuitive thinking was court jester. I was wrong.


The research validated the importance of the intuitive style of problem-solving thinking and proposed that individuals have a preference for either the rational or intuitive style. However, the “Off the Beaten path” lab study found that using both styles in tandem produces more creative solutions than using either alone. Mind-boggling.


Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, also focused on two ways of problem-solving thinking labeled System 1 and 2, roughly equivalent to intuitive and rational. System 1 (similar to intuitive) is difficult to modify, emotionally charged, and governed by habit whereas System 2 (similar to rational) is relatively flexible, potentially rule-governed, controlled, emotionally neutral, and intentional. Alvaro Fernandez, founder of SharpBrains.com, says that he has believed for years that the intuition versus rationality debate is misguided. “It is not about one or the other: they each are valuable tools that we must learn to use in the appropriate context.” For example, a fast, unconscious, intuitive style might seem fitting to determine what one word fits with the three words, park, volley, and boy to make three new words. A slow, conscious rational style might seem to work better to read an electrocardiogram.


Noting the intrinsic influence of the intuitive style on the rational style, Fernandez says,  “What Kahneman’s work is really about is the cognitive and perceptual biases that prevent us from being ‘rational/ logical’ even when we think we are. In other words, many people, much of the time, have the illusion of rationality when in truth they are being nothing of the sort, simply following their biases, in an intuitive way, and believing they are being rational/ logical problem-solvers of the situation at hand.”


The final nail in the “rational problem solving is king” coffin arrived with The Agile Mind, by Wilma Koutstaal, Ph.D, whose thoughts and research facts about problem-solving race ahead from the rational versus intuitive starting line. She writes that highly effective problem solvers know how to move flexibly from intuitive to rational and back again and from specific to abstract thinking — and back again — regardless of what type of problem is addressed. “Mental agility is best promoted by equally valuing intuition and analysis — along with attention to detail and the big picture.”  Koutstaal’s clearly written, researched, and organized book convinces the reader that problem solving is the welcomed task of a flexible, collaborative, team. We have in our mind exactly what we need, although we may need to increase brain management skills.


A nimble, ambidextrous mind, dealing effectively with thinking, emotion, and action, might be a more envious asset than a flexible body and perhaps harder to achieve. Because the rational style of problem-solving is conscious, it can be learned in standard ways by those who prefer the intuitive style; therefore not a problem. The intuitive style however is unconscious, requiring a very different, and perhaps more difficult process for acquisition by rational thinkers. Oops. That’s me. I’ve got work to do at the brain gym.