“Intuition” and “Common Sense” Considered Harmful

Sometimes, you can improve your thinking just by avoiding using certain terms. I stopped using “best practice”, years ago. When I am tempted to use the term in a serious discussion of methodology, I am forced to use an alternative, and that alternative is always superior.

It’s just like giving up the use of the goto statement. I feel free to use it when I program, but I find that I almost always have a better option available.

Two other terms I have stopped using are “intuition” and “common sense.” Here’s why:

I understand “intuition” to mean the mysterious source of ideas that have no other apparent source. When I say that I used my intuition to solve a problem, I feel like it’s code for saying that I don’t have any idea how I solved the problem. To ascribe something to intuition, however, gives the impression of explaining it, even though nothing has been explained. What we call intuition is exactly the same thing we used to call divine inspiration. The Gods gave me that idea!

I understand “common sense” to be a skill or skill set (and to some extent knowledge) that we assume everyone has, and therefore everyone can simply employ it to solve the problem at hand. If everyone can solve the problem, then there’s no reason to worry about the problem or the solution. To invoke common sense is to banish both problem and solution to obscurity.

In both these cases, the terms are often used as opiates, to dull or stall discussion. Strangely enough, I hear the terms invoked most often in the midst of arguments that where the supposedly commonsense or intuitive issue is, in fact, the subject of the dispute: the very existence of the discussion proves that at least one person doesn’t share that sense in common or share that intuition. In situations like that, invoking common sense or intuition is just another way of saying “if you disagree with me, you must be crazy.”

That leads to this subtitle heuristic: “Intuition” and “Common Sense” really means “I have no idea what’s going on, or at any rate, I won’t respond to your questions about it.”

(I’ve come to a point where I prefer to admit that I don’t have a clue, in those situations where I really don’t have a clue. I feel better being open about that. I feel dirty when I dish out explanatives rather than come to grips with a subject. Besides, I risk being exposed as a fool. Few things feel worse to me than being exposed. My favorite defense against exposure is to avoid enclosing anything important to begin with.)

Fortunately, I’ve found that I do have some idea what’s going on. I usually can cite a heuristic or a pattern that offers some insight. And I’m getting better with practice.

21 thoughts on ““Intuition” and “Common Sense” Considered Harmful

  1. I see your point on the misuse of “common sense” but “intuition” seems a synonym for “judgement informed by experience” and thus what’s wrong with people having a different intuitive reaction to the same problem?

    And while I can see the benefit in trying to analyze your intuitive process, to make the unconsious consious, there is the subtle trap that the brain is a rationalizing engine and quite good after the fact fiction.

    [James’ Reply: I haven’t noticed anyone limiting the term “intuition” to experience. I guess for some people it’s an article of faith that an idea from apparently nowhere must have come from experience, but not for me. In any case, it’s an unhelpful rhetorical technique to claim that intuition does come from experience, because a sharp opponent (an opponent being someone not inclined to believe just any old thing you say) will ask “what experience?” If you can’t say what experience, specifically, informs your judgment, then how can you legitimately convince that person to trust you because of your experience? Besides, if you want to refer to your experience, there’s a better word to use than intuition: “experience.”

    Yes, when I explain how I came up with an idea, I’m very aware that I don’t really know if that’s how I did it. The good news is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is the plausibility and utility of the explanation, so that the conversation can continue, instead of stopping dead at the intractable I-word. Of course, it’s important to recognize the speculative nature of any explanation about how and why a particular came to us at a particular time.] 

  2. In a similar vein, I avoid the word “obvious[ly]”, especially in written communication. If the thing I’m talking about really is obvious, then I don’t need to be saying it – if I need to be talking about it, then its not obvious.

  3. My understanding of “intuition” is that it is based on experience. Unlike logic it employs patterns matching feature of the people brain. The best example I could think of is a grammar “rules” which are like heuristics, but do you use them when you speak your native language?
    However I agree with you that we need to categorize the experience just like linguists have categorized grammar rules.
    But I’m going to trust my intuition as the most powerful testing skill.

    [James’ Reply: I’m talking about how the term “intuition” is used. I’m talking about the utility of that term. The phenomenon of intuition is a different thing. It is what it is. It probably has to do with experience and neurology, both. But so what? If you try to support an argument by invoking intuition then you will get absolutely nowhere, unless you successfully fool or bully the person you’re arguing with. In other words, if you tell me you trust your intuition, you’ve told me nothing except that you place trust in things you don’t understand. This does not help your credibility as a thinker, at least with skeptical people like me.]

  4. I totally agree with you, James.

    I do tech support, so this is pretty important to me – I find myself going, ‘why can’t people understand this very simple concept? It’s common sense!’ …. which is a no-no. Of course *I* understand the concept, because I’m telling them how to apply it…

    I think in a larger sense, using words like these is an indication of being very subjective where it’s completely inappropriate.

  5. I think both intuition and common sense are based on experience. For example, it’s considered common sense not to place metal objects in a microwave. But if you’ve never encountered a microwave before, you’re not going to know that you can’t put a plate of leftovers covered with aluminum foil in there. So what’s obvious to some isn’t to others. My takeaway from this is that you can formulate theories, and target your testing based on intuition or common sense, but you’d better be prepared to back that up with hard data. If you don’t have that, you’re going to lose credibility with your peers.

  6. I agree that using intuition as a reason for your testing, to explain your testing, is not acceptable. I also understand your response to Ainars where you say that you are not against the idea of intuition.

    However, I think intuition is an important skill to develop, especially in Rapid Testing. In addition, I think it’s ok to call it what it is, as long as you understand it for what it is and you’re not using it as a cover for “I have no idea what’s going on, or at any rate, I won’t respond to your questions about it.â€?

    [James’ Reply: How do you develop intuition as a skill? How would you know if you’ve developed it?]

    In his book “Attack and Defence” Mark Dvoretsky beautifully outlines what intuition is for a chess player. As a champion chess player and a trainer of chess players, he encourages players to understand the principles and strategies of the game. However, because is chess (like in testing) you play the game with a clock, he points out that it’s ok to rely on intuition to make moves early in the game.

    In fact, it’s not only ok, it’s what separates the Masters from the Grand Masters. A Grand Master uses intuition liberally early in the game, saving time for heavy analytical thought later in the game. In testing, I think we need to be able to do the same thing.

    [James’ Reply: I’m just not convinced you, I, or anyone else knows what the heck it means to “use intuition”. I assume it means that ideas pop into my head as if by magic. But that isn’t saying much. Maybe it isn’t saying anything. That is how I play chess, by the way, and I happen to be a terrible chess player.]

    At the time the player makes an intuitive move, they may not know why they made it. In fact, that’s why it’s intuitive. But Dvoretsky would say that, upon analysis, the player should be able to articulate the reasons for the move following the game when they have more time (retrospective anyone?). They can explain their intuition using principles, past games (experience), and their understanding of their opponent. But at the time they make the choice, they don’t need to know. They need to be fast, decisive, and to some extent effective in their ability to make a “good enough” move under those conditions.

    [James’ Reply: I prefer to use a different word than intuition for that. I call that reflex. We can program our reflexes to some extent.] 

    In a talk at a Rational conference years ago, you said, “Testers should feel free to use their intuition liberally. They should swab it over everything they touch….” You then went on to explain that, as in this post, they should not justify their actions through intuition. They should justify them using logic, principles, and heuristics (my words, not yours).

    [James’ Reply: Yes, I’m in the process of clarifying what I think I mean by intuition, so that I can use the word more effectively.] 

    So my argument is this:

    When you ask me why I did something, it’s acceptable for me to say, “It was an intuitive decision.” And I’m not saying, “I have no idea what’s going on, or at any rate, I won’t respond to your questions about it.â€?

    I’m instead saying:

    “I’m trying to be a grand master tester. I understand that testing happens under a clock. I study how to develop intuition as well as testing theory. I’m making decisions using heuristics that I’m not aware of (which Michael Bolton is really good at pointing out to me) to allow myself the time to focus on those late-in-the-game testing moves that will require the full force of my testing though power. If you are willing, I’m happy to examine this game, and my past games, to come to an understanding of why I made that decision, but I’m not willing to say that ‘I have no idea what’s going on.’ I do know what’s going on. I’m making a conscious decision to not actively think about this problem, so I have more time to actively think about the next problem. If you have a different understand of the risks of the project at this point in our testing that you feel this is rash or counter productive, please share them with me so I can reevaluate where I think I am in this game.”

    [James’ Reply: Are you or are you not prepared to explain and defend your decisions? You can say you made an intuitive decision, but in your longer explanation you’ve provided no insight into your decision. If it’s a black box, even to yourself, than just say that. You do indeed have no idea where the decision came from. Why back away from that fact?

    It looks to me like your longer explanation is mostly a justification for why you shouldn’t have to know how you made your decision. My original post is about not taking refuge in a pseudo-explanation, if you need an explanation at all.]

    Now, that said, I still try to not use the word intuition when I explain my testing to others. Because as you say (and as Dvoretsky points out when teaching chess students), a student of the craft can’t learn from someone else’s intuition. They must develop their own.

  7. That leads to this subtitle heuristic: “Intuition� and “Common Sense� really means “I have no idea what’s going on, or at any rate, I won’t respond to your questions about it.�

    Beg pardon. Did you mean “subtitle”, or did you mean “subtle” in an ironic way? Or “subtext”? On to the meat.

    [James’ Reply: I meant “subtitle” as in the little words on the bottom of the screen. A subtitle heuristic is one that operates by suggesting an alternative phrase for the phrase that is presented.]

    I get the impression that what you’re objecting to is use of those code phrases as conversation stoppers. In my experience, others talking about “common sense” is just about always a big fluorescent red flag; “intuition”, less often. So my gut (intuition?) says your heuristic is about half right.

    Certainly, people can shut down conversations with any number of coded phrases. Any such activity should be open to examination.

    I want to unpack your “what x really mean[s]” a bit. I know you like to speak boldly.

    I think we all agree that “experts” have a stake in always sounding like they know what they’re talking about. I think there’s essential tension between that and the desire to communicate as a peer.

    I wish it were always possible to say to a colleague or client, “I have an intuition about x” and mean neither “my mind’s made up” nor “I can’t dissect this for you”. That’s certainly what I would want if I ever said it. But depending on the person I’m talking to, I might not ever be able to say that, because they would presume I meant one of those things. Bummer. Thanks for the clue.

    [James’ Reply: Actually, I don’t find that particular usage to be a problem. I’m more concerned when the word intuition is used as a justification. Saying “I have an intuition about that” doesn’t sound like an attempt to justify the idea, so I see little harm in it.]

    Now, I get the feeling that you are talking about a particular scenario where you are probing and all you get back is “intuition, intuition, blah blah blah.” And you perceive unresponsiveness. Am I right?

    [James’ Reply: Yes. Exactly.] 

    I have a history of a similar impasse where, in some circumstance of strongly stated opinion or other, I’ll say “I disagree” and then stop and wait for feedback — will the other person ask “Oh? Why?”, or at least indicate nonverbally that they are open to more information…?

    I have discovered that I unconsciously think of this as simple politeness plus honest workmanlike forthrightness among peers. Bandwidth compression plus give-and-take, with the prominent alternative being turning on a firehose of disagreement. Obviously, there are people who would find this tone far from polite, and circumstances where it would be counterproductive. I’m really trying to cultivate an experience of exploration even when things start to feel adversarial. I’m far from perfect at it.

    But, and this is something I’ve only come to an understanding of in the last year or two… when the other person doesn’t return the volley in one of those ways — or when I miss them doing it — I found myself faced with two unpalatable alternatives: that person wasn’t listening, or that person doesn’t think my reasoning is important. Both of these, again, “going without saying” for me, historically.

    It turns out that maybe there’s another possibility. Maybe as simple as saying “I disagree. Here’s one issue… ” and stopping after I finish that sentence. Or even saying “Well, what about…” and making any “I disagree…” altogether implicit.

    My habitual default behavior can still lead to the impasse. I need more practice at “trip-wiring” this.

    I invite you to extend your comments about intuition further. Is this heuristic of yours bounded in any ways that “went without saying”? 🙂 What observations are it based on?

    [James’ Reply: Yes, of course, there are many things that I intended to go without saying. If I try to say everything I A) fail, and B) drive people nuts. So, I restrict what I say to the things I think matter, given my audience. Sometimes, perhaps often, I guess wrong.

    Based on the comments I’ve seen, I think I need to rewrite and clarify.]

    Related to the above, I commend something Kathy Sierra wrote at: http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/04/when_only_the_g.html . Near the end, she writes (about concerns-not-yet-articulable):

    “The best solution is to ask for time to think, research, analyze, evaluate, etc. Just because you can talk fast doesn’t mean you should. But it helps to be quick enough to make the case for why you can’t articulate your point on the spot, and why taking the time to do so could be of great value.”

    So if my intuition is right about the scenario where people talking about “intuition” p*sses you off, maybe some sort of invitation like that might profitably become part of your probing jiu-jitsu?

    Or did I guess wrong? 🙂

    [James’ Reply: I feel like you get it. Thanks. I’ll think about this.] 

  8. Mike Kelly said: However, I think intuition is an important skill to develop, especially in Rapid Testing.

    I think there is more to it. I have been in a quest to achieve “Flow” as often as possible, which in my mind brings intuition, focus, knowledge and control together in one heady mix.

    What’s “Flow”? The following is a definition as found on wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology))

    Flow is a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.

    Components of flow
    As Csikszentmihalyi sees it, there are components of an experience of flow that can be specifically enumerated; he presents eight:

    1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernable).
    2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
    3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
    4. Distorted sense of time – our subjective experience of time is altered.
    5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
    6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
    7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
    8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
    Not all of these components are needed for flow to be experienced.

    When you experience flow everthing seems to be effortless and brilliant at the same time. It is a very addictive feeling and one that most people have experienced at least one time in their lives. Afterwards people will ask you “How did you do that? That was amazing.”. Just saying “intuition” would not correctly describe it.

  9. “If it’s a black box, even to yourself, than just say that. You do indeed have no idea where the decision came from. Why back away from that fact?”

    That makes sense to me. What I like to use instead intuition is that something “feels right” or “feels wrong.” Many times I’ve been in a situation where someone wanted to do something in a way that I “knew” wasn’t the right way but I couldn’t explain why and all I could say is that it just didn’t feel right and I would say that I couldn’t explain why.

  10. Common sense is pretty, er…uncommon in my expereince.

    The context that I hear “it’s just common sense”, is often when a developer is justifying why a user (or tester) complaint is baseless.

    As in “Well, clearly the widget-thing has to be triple-clicked to show it’s menu, it’s common sense!”


    The other popular place this shows up is when customers are unhappy about the development team not reading their minds.

    As in “What! You didn’t keep a history of every change to the Patient record?? I know I didn’t TELL you to, but that’s just common sense! Do I have to tell you not to trip over your shoes when you walk??”


    Maybe what we all mean when we say “common sense” is more like “Only an idiot would fail to come to the same conclusion that I did”.

  11. I got it! You are talking credibility. Credibility requires evidence. The only evidence of using Intuition is the solved problem. Therefore process in not credible. I could find a heuristic for each problem solution where I used intuition, this could make it more credible, but not for me – I know the heuristic Actually has nothing to with helping me in solving the problem (like the scripted tests helps). However I know that one of my biggest problems is inability to develop credibility otherwise than solving the problems. People recognize my results, thus I earn the credibility, but this is the longest way to earn it. I hope to learn from You, James and others how to do it faster.
    Intuition could be developed as a skill. But this is a whole story that I think to blog (thanks for idea to do it).

    [James’ Reply: Yes, excellent point. Credibility is a key issue, here. If your credibility is high enough, I will “intuitively” accept whatever you do. Building credibility gives you the opportunity to indulge your intuition without having to defend your decisions. Nevertheless, when you are explaining or defending something, I think invoking intuition or, worse, common sense, can be like closing a curtain and hiding behind it. I suppose it is possible to talk about those things in constructive way… If so, I’m not sure how to do it.] 

  12. James,

    Can you tell me about what you do in situations that, while discussiing a topic, someone pulls the intuition and/or common sense card on you? What are some ways you work through this situation to get the conversation back in the direction you want?

    Here are some ways I’ve thought of

    One Could:
    – Give up – not very useful if you are trying to get somewhere with a conversation

    – Acknowledge that they dont want to talk about the subject and leave it alone.

    – Ask them to explain what they mean by common sense and totally derail the discussion into a defintion war.

    – Bluntly ask them if they think you are crazy/stupid for disagreeing/not undertanding/not knowing what they are talking about

    – Ask a few others if they knew the topic under discussion – if they did – then maybe the topic is more “common”. But perhaps only more to those people.

    – Restate the problem again in an attempt to get the conversation back on track


    [James’ Reply: It depends on the context in which the gambit is tried.

    The behavior I’m worried about is when the I-word and the C-S-word are used to hide or avoid something that should be out in the open and not avoided.

    If it’s a student of mine, then the answer is unnacceptable, so I help him clarify what he’s talking about. For instance, I might say “Intuition is not an explanation. If you really don’t have an explanation then just say you don’t know why you tried that test. It’s better not to know than to pretend to know. But think about it. Maybe you have some idea… {wait}… How about this {I make suggestion}?”

    If it’s a colleague talking about methodology, then I treat their statement as either a meaningless utterance (much like “um”) or else as a way of sweeping under the rhetorical rug the magical ingredient that makes their kooky process idea actually work. (“My V-model, in combination with people who know how to succeed whether or not they have a V-model, will make all our lives better”) This magic ingredient I prefer to call “skill” rather than intuition. Skill is an improvable ability. Skill implies something that can be taught. If I think that’s what is going on, then I want to de-mystify the skill elements involved. I try to shift the conversation to talk about those.

    You know, this isn’t just about words, there is a great deal of easily available information about how people learn complex cognitive tasks. Over in the world of education theory, you don’t see people shrugging and saying a complex subject can’t be taught because “it’s just intuition and common sense.”

    In yet another context, if my wife tells me she operates on intuition, I say “yes, dear.”]

  13. I inflict my intuition on others sometimes. For example, I recently told a developer, “I have a hunch that the bug won’t be reproducible on the machine you usually use, so be prepared to use a different machine.” Another time I said effectively “I believe that there is acceptably low risk of encountering major problems if you release the software now, though I won’t be very confident in that belief unless you allocate more time for testing.”

    I try to make it clear when I’m guessing/using intuition, so that we can decide to gather more information for a better opinion when appropriate.

    BTW, it turned out that the first hunch above was wrong, and the second one was right.

    [James’ Reply: I don’t consider that inflicting, but rather offering. You’d be inflicting if you pugnaciously insisted on your right to be supported in an action solely on the merits of your intuition. I don’t see anything generally wrong with offering someone the fruit of your unconscious thought processes. Sounds to me like you’re behaving responsibly.]

  14. Whenever I find a bug with my ‘intuition’, I note it in a excel sheet which I call ‘Bugs Found without intention’, and then try to analyse it whenever I have time, as to try to see a pattern in them, or find out why I could not see it when I thought of all my test cases. This help me think of similar test cases which I could have missied if not had the right intuition at the right time

  15. As I read this two things jump out at me. One is Jerry Weinberg’s (imagined) voice talking about lullaby words as he discussed in “More Secrets of Consulting”. In fact, I recently wrote a column about including “should” and “shouldn’t” to the list of lullaby words for testers. http://www.perftestplus.com/resources/018PeakPerf.pdf I see “intuition” and “common sense” in the same catetory when it comes to discussing what one has done.

    The second thing is that I kinda like Danny’s term “hunch”. If I did something based on previous experience, I will always admit that – and am happy to describe that expperience and how it did, or I thought it would, relate. “Hunch”, to me, communicates that I honestly *don’t* know where the idea or feeling came from specifically, without also communicating that I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I can articulate a hunch (in so far as it goes). For example, I can say, “Based on some conversations I had with the developers, when I got to this feature, I didn’t feel confident, but I wasn’t sure why. Thinking about that feeling, I had a hunch that testing X would be valuable.” This is all about feeling rather than knowing. I don’t really know *why* I felt the way that I did, but I *do* know how I felt and can point to at least some of the triggers for that feeling.

  16. Despite this conversation being four years old, I felt strongly about it, and I am not sure why. Perhaps it has to do with my interest in understanding intuitive heuristics and developing skills that I can’t explain.

    As a relatively new software tester (around 2 years of experience) I find myself frustrated that I have notions and intuition about things–precisely because it is a sign to me that I’m doing something either incorrectly or something I can’t yet reproduce. I want to figure out what gave rise to that intuition.

    The main thing I take away from the post and comments is that “intuition” seems to suggest honed or sublime ability–yet even inexperienced people have feelings of intuition. I think the main problem with the word is that some people’s intuition is trained and can be studied, while others have untrained or misleading intuition. The word itself offers no insight into how much experience or credibility the author or source of intuition is (the tester).

    Intuition is really a blanket word for a lot of things we feel as testers, while we are doing our tasks. Words I see in this conversation and think of myself include: suspect/suspicion, discomfort, uncertainty, eureka moments, epiphany, introspection, clarity, “know” with quotes, “it clicks”, focus, flow, just makes sense (to someone), obviousness or apparent notions, recognizing useful creative similarity, recognizing useful analogies, past experience informing present action, past frustration and obstacles associating by analogy, hunches, etc. (feel free to pare down this list before posting it)

    Perhaps what you want, James, is for experienced and qualified testers to intentionally (eg, work at it) develop a reflexive or intuitive sense of alternative and more specific terms to use in the place of “intuition” — something that will not happen naturally. By questioning ourselves and others about how we intuit an idea, we can try to make it more reproducible, or avoid misleading hypotheses and hunches.

    [James’ Reply: Well put.]

  17. Its incredible no one seems to understand intuition. I am using intuition from what I’ve learned from MBTI. Sensing would be the opposite of intuition. Intuition is abstract thinking, or thinking of possible instead of just is. Sensing is concrete. Dislikes abstract. Probably sucks at math. Can not understand metaphor. Intuitive is pattern recognition while sensing is just sensing. Intuition is like thinking in pattern or without words.

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