Two weeks ago I wrote about an interesting experiment in the Wall Street Journal to compare intuition versus objectivity in picking winners in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The intuitive method was straightforward – pick the winner of each game using your instincts, biases, likes and dislikes. The objective method designed by the Journal required you to predict winners knowing only certain information about the teams (e.g., experience, height, 3 point shooting ability, etc.), but not the specific identity of the teams. I decided to play along.
So, two weeks and sixty games later, how did I do? Or rather, how did my instincts do versus my objectivity? Drum roll, please…
In those games where the methods resulted in my predicting different winners, I picked the correct outcome four times using my instincts versus three times using objectivity.
What conclusions can we draw? Does instinct trump objectivity? Hardly.
The first thing that jumped out – which I noticed before a single game had been played – was the extremely limited sample size. I predicted different winners in only seven games!
So, was there anything unique about those seven games that might prove enlightening? As a matter of fact, yes: all seven of those games involved teams seeded between five and twelve. That is, they didn’t involve any top four seeds (and thus no bottom four seeds). And it’s important to note that while I didn’t know the identity of the teams using the Journal’s method, I did know the team’s approximate seeding (the Journal gave the team’s seeding within a range of two (i.e., “a 1 or 2 seed,” “a 5 or 6 seed,” etc.). Of the 32 first-round games, I picked the lower seed to win only twice by instinct and only four times by objectivity. Clearly, seeding heavily influenced my selections in both methods, and thus this really wasn’t a comparison of intuition versus objectivity.
There’s much more we could explore in this comparison, but in the interest of brevity I’ll end here with the following thought: intuition and objectivity are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate. Intuition is the interpretation of our past experiences (including lots of factual data). Objectivity often requires that we choose among competing measures and sources of data, which we can attempt to do scientifically, but often times we do because something feels better.
The debate of objectivity versus intuition, while interesting, really isn’t an issue of either or. And in designing experiments to explore it, we need to be especially mindful of how the two are often entangled.