This is the conclusion of the intuition series that began with this article:
The first article detailed areas where studies have shown our intuition doesn’t serve us well. This article will detail those areas where we do a lot better with our intuitive knowledge.
Before getting to that however I would like to briefly address something that came out in the comments on the first article. Some of you didn’t seem to agree with the conclusions. You obviously believe you are much better at those intuitions than research would indicate. I guess this should not be surprising. Overconfidence bias is well known in psychology. Our overconfidence in our abilities has been clearly demonstrated. So it is not surprising that such overconfidence extends to our beliefs about our intuition. To believe that our intuitive abilities are somehow excluded from that bias is likely nothing more than wishful thinking.
It does not surprise me that the mothers, wives, children and friends of clearly guilty defendants go to court and testify on their behalf claiming that there is “no way” they could have done the crime. I have no doubt that they are usually very sincere in their beliefs. I also have no doubt they are often clearly mistaken.
Anecdotal evidence is excluded from scientific conclusions for good reason. It is clearly unreliable. We all argue from personal experience because we usually have nothing else. I do it all the time. However, I am not so deluded as to believe that means a whole lot. It’s better than nothing, but when presented with good studies that show something different, I will go with the scientific evidence every time. Science may not be perfect but it is the best we have right now.
When Intuition Does Work Well
Intuitive attitudes and feelings
Intuitively expressed attitudes predict later behavior better than analyzed attitudes. Subjects who simply express their attitude about people or things will later be shown to behave in alignment with that attitude. However, if subjects are asked to analyze their attitudes before expressing them, the reported attitude does not predict their subsequent behavior.
What this may mean is that consciously analyzing your attitudes will cause you to focus on things that are easily verbalized at the expense of more important factors that are hard to put into words or factors of which you are not consciously aware.
As just one example consider the following. Dating couples who were simply asked if they were happy with their relationship reported attitudes that strongly predicted whether they were still dating several months later. However, if they were first asked to list all the reasons why their relationships were good or bad, their subsequent happiness report was useless in predicting if they would be dating several months later. When it comes to feelings, your intuition is a good thing. Reflecting on feelings just draws attention to plausible but sometimes erroneous factors. Go with your gut.
As a man, I love this example. Ladies, no more relationship chatter please
Reading Personality Traits
It should not surprise anyone that humans have a lot of social intelligence. Subjects were shown short clips of teachers in a class. These clips ranged from thirty seconds down to as short as two seconds. Even on the shortest clips there was high correlation between the subjects valuation of the teachers’ personality traits and those of students who spent an entire semester in the classes with those teachers. These and other experiments demonstrate that instant evaluations are often as good as lasting impressions. Maybe instant impressions last, but either way the instant evaluations are often as good as longer term evaluations.
Being in touch with our bodies
Many instant emotional reactions are valid and occur in our bodies first while bypassing the conscious mind. There is even some evidence that some of our emotions are actually a result of the mind reading our own body’s reaction. Our minds sense our increased heart rates, blood pressure, stomach tightness, etc. and then form an emotional reaction in our minds. We are one integrated system.
Both men and women are intuitively good at this stuff, but… Women surpass men in reading emotions in all kinds of messages (no kidding!). Women are better than men at reading facial expressions. Women are better at detecting lies. Women are better in decoding relative power (who is the boss and who is the subordinate).
Your brain has amazing powers in the area of non-conscious learning and expertise. A lot of research has been done in this area. We learn how to do things without without knowing we know and/or not knowing how we are doing it. I remember reading once about experiments with two decks of cards. The test subject played some game by drawing from one of two decks. One of the decks was a lot more favorable than the other. It didn’t take long for the subjects to start drawing more frequently from the more favorable deck. However, the interesting thing was that they started this before they realized they were doing it and before they consciously determined that one deck was more favorable. They intuitively figured out one deck was favorable, but they didn’t consciously realize that fact or know how they did it.
Other experiments have shown people can detect patterns that are complex which they simply can’t explain. In other words they can’t consciously understand the pattern even though their unconscious mind has already solved it. I find this kind of stuff absolutely fascinating.
We intuitively remember what we cannot consciously recall. Imagine this. You are wearing headphones. In one ear you are listening to a prose passage and you are repeating the words and checking them against a written transcript you have been provided. It takes such completely focused attention that you are totally oblivious to novel tunes being played in your other ear.
Later you are unable to pick out any of these tunes from among others that you did not hear. You have no conscious memory that you have ever heard any of them. You cannot pick them out of a musical lineup. However, when you are asked to rate all the tunes, the ones you heard and the ones you didn’t, you will prefer the tunes that you heard. Similar results are obtained with unfamiliar names. Your brain is storing memories of things to which you are not attending and which can’t be consciously recalled.
Other research on certain brain damaged patients who can no longer recall anything new they learn, has demonstrated that they can actually learn and remember a great deal. They cannot consciously recall any of it and have no memory whatsoever of having learned it. They will deny they’ve ever been exposed to it and yet experiments prove they have learned it. They can even be taught very complicated job skills.
Once you become an expert on something, you just intuitively know what to do without thinking about it. A chess master can make a great move in seconds without possibly being able to consciously analyze it in such a short time. He just intuitively knows the right move. Athletes intuitively make instant decisions and movements that are usually correct. They just “feel it”. They can’t possibly take the time reason it out because they don’t have enough time to to do so. A baseball or tennis ball coming at you will get to you faster than your visual cortex can create a picture in your conscious mind.
How about chicken sexers? Sex organs are indistinguishable in chicks and until the adult feathers start showing up at five to six weeks, the sex of the chickens can not be determined. Some Japanese have developed the uncanny ability to accurately sex day-old chicks, even though poultry farmers can’t tell the difference. Foreign hatcheries started sending apprentices to work with the Japanese and they learned how to do the same thing by getting feedback from the Japanese experts on their guesses. They don’t know how they do it. It seems it is too complex and subtle for the conscious mind to reason out.
Clearly our intuitive or non-conscious mind is a powerful tool as long as we understand when it is likely to be effective and when it is likely to lead us astray. I think science has barely scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the power and the perils of the non-conscious mind. The tools for peering into the human brain while the owner is still alive have only recently become available. The future is bright as far as I’m concerned.
I hope you intuitive types out there liked this article better than the first one. It’s not all bad news. Personally, when I have trouble reasoning something out, I will usually just go with my gut rather than agonize over it. This is especially true if the consequences of choosing one way or the other are not overly significant. However, having learned where human intuition is not all that reliable, I am more likely to give it more thought than I might have before. I recommend you do the same. A little scientific reasonableness may just be what the doctor (Ph.D) ordered. Going overboard just because intuition is hot right now may not be the best approach.
What do you think? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
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