This is the first article in a two-part series. The second article can be found here:
I’m a strong believer in the power of human intuition, but at the same time I want to understand it from a scientific point of view. I want to know when and if I can trust my intuitive sense. I don’t want to just intuitively accept intuition as a reliable form of knowledge. In this article and the next, I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned about intuition and under what circumstances science has found it to serve us well or not serve us so well. A lot of credit for this material goes to David G. Myers and his excellent book Intuition: Its Powers and Perils.
What is Intuition
In short it is the acquisition or access to knowledge without the use of reason. It’s direct knowledge without the conscious rational processes we normally call “thinking”. For example, when you first meet someone you instantly and unconsciously make all kinds of intuitive judgments about them. This sizing up of a person is happening in your non-conscious mind. Your non-conscious mind processes vast amounts of information that you are not aware of at a conscious level. We really are of two minds and the science behind it all is amazing, but that is another topic.
When Intuition Doesn’t Work Well
Confidence in our abilities
We are intuitively overconfident of our own abilities in all kinds of areas. To cite just one extreme example: In a study of 800,000 students, 100% of them rated themselves at or above average in their ability in dealing with other people. 60% put themselves in the top 10% and 25% of them put themselves in the top 1%. They intuitively felt they were socially talented. Here is a humbling summary of research on overconfidence:
“People think they will be able to solve problems when they wont; they are highly confident that they are on the verge of producing the correct answer when they are, in fact, about to produce a mistake; they think they have solved problems when they haven’t; they think they know the answers to information questions when they don’t; they think they have the answer on the tip of their tongue when there is no answer; they think they produced the correct answer when they didn’t, and furthermore, they say they knew it all along; they believe they have mastered learning material when they haven’t; they think they have understood, even though demonstrably they are still in the dark.” – Janet Metcalfe
Knowing why we do things
Study after study has shown that we are very poor at knowing why we do things. Our intuitions in this regard are very unreliable. Sometimes we just make something up. It seems that once we act we have to have reasons for those actions. When the influences are either hidden or subtle, our intuitions about why we acted can be radically mistaken.
Predicting our Feelings
Studies clearly show that we are not good at predicting how we are going to react emotionally to various situations. We are particularly bad at our intuition of the intensity and duration of those emotions.
Predicting our behavior
Just like predicting our feelings, we aren’t that great at predicting what we are going to do. However, there is an interesting twist to this one. We are fairly good at predicting how others will behave. Our actual behavior matches more closely our predictions for others than it does our predictions for ourselves.
We are pattern seeking animals and we intuitively find find patterns in the random. Arthritis sufferers believe their pain is worse under certain weather conditions, but those same patients’ actual pain reports are uncorrelated with any particular weather condition. We perceive relations where none exist.
Our intuitions of risk stink. We are afraid of spectacular or uncommon risks, but downplay the common risks. People will stay out of the water because they are afraid of sharks, but they will readily swim when they are far more likely to drown than be attacked by a Great White. People are afraid of new risks, but comfortable with the familiar. Whose afraid of West Nile virus now? On the other hand the whole country is freaking out over a new flu strain that so far hasn’t even approached the death rate of the seasonal flu.
We are decent with small numbers, but once they get larger than a few we don’t do well at all. We give much more weight to a probability of 2,000 in 10,000 than 2 in 10 even though they are they are the same. What’s even worse, we think 1 in 7 is less likely than 10 in 100. It seems the numerator is what counts. 10 seems intuitively more likely than 1, regardless of the denominator. The following is my favorite all time lottery statistic. If you buy a lottery ticket on Monday, you are 2,500 times more likely to die before the lottery drawing on Saturday than you are to win the jackpot.
Whether it is therapists or doctors interviewing patients or employers interviewing prospective employees, we don’t do well with informal interviews. If you are an employer, use an aptitude test. If you are a clinician, use a computerized analysis of question answers. In both cases your results will improve.
I love this one. There has been a lot of research on the “hot hand” phenomenon. Everyone just knows that a basketball player, for example, goes through hot and cold shooting streaks right? Well, yes and no. His shots are streaky, but it turns out that they are no more streaky than would be expected from a random distribution of his overall shooting percentage. Counter-intuitive maybe, but it is hard to argue with the research. The same thing applies to hot and cold winning or losing streaks by sports teams. In this regard, imagine two people; one who actually flips a coin 100 times and another who makes up a fake series of 100 coin flips. An expert can easily determine which one is the fake series just by looking at the results. The one which looks more “random” will be the fake series. The true coin flip series will have longer streaks of heads and tails than people intuitively believe would occur by chance. The faker doesn’t include enough streaks.
To be continued…
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