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Powell's Q&A

Gerd Gigerenzer

Describe your latest project.
One of the driving questions behind my research has been one that most scientists tend to avoid like the plague: How does intuition work? In a time when standard how-to manuals discuss the optimal rational method for making optimal decisions, dismissing our hunches as hocus-pocus, Gut Feelings presents intuition and its role in decision making in a new light. Backed by years of research, it provides numerous examples that illustrate when and where we should rely on our gut feelings. The idea was developed following my book Calculated Risks, which enables those without a mathematical background to better understand the statistics that affect our everyday lives.

What is the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
To be a researcher, writer, teacher, administrator, and emotional support for a group of three dozen social scientists and staff. To encourage them, share their joy, wipe away their tears, and help them to succeed. That's what it is to be a director at a Max-Planck-Institute. It's my ideal job.

Name another author I think people should read.
Roger N. Shepard, Mind Sights.

Wonderful visual illusions that makes you marvel at how your mind works.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing." — Blaise Pascal

I use this statement from the famous 17th-century French mathematician Pascal as the epigraph to the first chapter of my book Gut Feelings. It captures the deep insight that intuition, like deliberate thinking, is "reasonable" rather than irrational.

How do you relax?
Being on a plane or train with my cellular phone turned off so that I can concentrate on what I am doing and nobody can interrupt me.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Malcolm Macmillan, An Odd Kind of Fame.

A fascinating book about Phineas Gage, the 19th-century railway worker whose left frontal brain lobe was destroyed in an explosion and who has since been a favorite subject in psychology and medicine. What I find most interesting is that his case has been used to defend a myriad of (often conflicting) scientific conjectures.

Why do you write?
Writing is to me like the sound of music to a guitar.

Make up a question, and answer it.
Question: Why do people believe that women are intuitive but men are rational?

Answer: Not because of facts, but because of history. For many centuries, reason was ranked above intuition, and men over women. This history is still in our minds, and it is time to get rid of it.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Books on Lost Emotions (emotions that have disappeared from our minds).

Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process
Explains how and why emotions appeared, changed, and disappeared in the last 1,000 years. For instance, you will learn why the Kings of France were not ashamed to be seen nude or complete their morning toilette in front of visitors. Shame was asymmetrical, depending on social status.

Ute Frevert, Men of Honor: Social History of the Duel
Not too long ago, men of noble status, professors, or military officers were willing to risk their lives in dueling. The feeling of male honor that was once so important has almost disappeared in our Western world.

Richard Nisbett, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South
A social psychologist traces the remainders of a society of honor through experiments, in American Southerners as opposed to Northerners.

Geoffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
The forbidden attraction between brother and sister.

Lorraine Daston, Wonder and the Order of Nature
Descartes put wonder at the top of his list of emotions. Today, this feeling of awe has more or less disappeared, as we tend to intellectually explain the wonders of nature and art rather than simply letting them impress us. This wonderful book with many illustrations revives the feeling and objects of wonder. spacer

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