Intuition is one of those iffy concepts. Its purpose, use, and ontology have been heavily debated in its long and contentious history. Western proverbial jargon illustrates this: we’ve been told that he who hesitates is lost, but shouldn’t we look before we leap? And believe that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but don’t the clothes make the man?
Now, psychology is weighing in. However, in place of armchair-rationality, it is using empirical data to illustrate how we actually behave. With concrete data, it seems like the intuition debate could finally be put to rest. But the opposite has occurred. Psychology has shown both the powers and perils of intuition only to complicate matters. And from the layperson point of view, I am having a difficult time trying to understand what the experts are trying to tell me.
First, there is a question about perception: How much do we see?
On one hand, consider the famous “Invisible Gorilla experiment,” done by psychologists Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons and made famous by their book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive us. In the experiment, subjects viewed a 30 second clip of two teams of four, one dressed in white and the other in black, passing around basketballs. The task was simple: count how many passes the white team makes. Most people got it correct – 34 passes. However, while the two teams are passing basketballs to each other, a student dressed in a full gorilla suit walks into the middle of the scene, stops, faces the camera, thumps his chest a few times, and walks off. When subjects were asked if they noticed anything unusual, roughly half said nothing of the gorilla. Chabris and Simons rightly conclude that “we experience far less of our visual world than we think we do.”
On the other hand, there is the 1993 experiment by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, as highlighted by Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, in which participants were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of a professor based off a few silent two-second video clips. Ambady and Rosenthal compared the ratings of the participants with those of students who had been enrolled with the same professor in a semester long class and found that the ratings of the participants were statistically consistent with the ratings of the students; that is, a silent two-second video clip was all the participants needed in order to accurately judge the effectiveness of a professor. As Ambady and Rosenthal conclude, “our consensual intuitive judgments might be unexpectedly accurate.”
So do my intuitions “deceive me?” Or are they “unexpectedly accurate?”
Second, there is a question about judgment and decision-making: Should I go with my gut? Or think things through?
On one hand, it is better to go with your gut. Consider a series of famous experiment done several years back by psychologist Timothy Wilson, which has appeared in a few popular psychology books including Wilson’s own Strangers to Ourselves and Jonah Lehrer’s How We Deicde. Wilson gave students two posters to choose from to take home. One group of students was told to take time and think through their decision, while the other group was told to decide quickly. Wilson followed up with the students a few weeks later and found that those who took time with their decision were less satisfied than those who did not. As Goethe said, “ he who deliberates lengthily will not always choose the best.”
On the other hand, there is an enormous amount of literature that illustrates how our gut decides poorly. In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely explains an experiment in which he asked 55 students to “jot down the last two digits of their social security numbers” and indicate 1) if they would be willing pay this amount for certain products and 2) the maximum amount they would be willing to bid for each product. After analyzing the data, Ariely found that the students with the highest-ending social security digits were willing to bid and pay the most and the students with the lowest-ending social security digits were willing to bid and pay the least. The key to Ariely’s experiment is that the social security number was randomly chosen; there was arbitrary coherence, as Ariely says, between the student’s willingness to bid and their social security numbers. Rationally speaking, the social security number shouldn’t have influenced their decisions, but as Ariely explains throughout his books, we aren’t rational.
So should I go with my gut? Or think things through to try to overcome my cognitive biases?
I hope you get the idea. From my point of view, which I would classify as an educated layperson, I don’t know what to make of the popular psychology literature; there are just so many conflicting messages. There’s Gary Klein’s The Power of Intuition and Chris Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive us, Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious and Tom Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. So which side is correct? Do my intuitions deceive me or do they help me? Should we go with out gut or think things through? Or, should we take from Jonah Lehrer’s How we Decide and David Myers’ Intuition: Its Power and Perils and find a middle ground?
Two things. First, a fair amount of the confusion is coming from the editors who like to publish books with catchy but misleading titles. I am sure that if the scientists had it their way, their titles wouldn’t make such general claims, which would reduce the conflicting messages. Second, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that I’m just debating semantics. Intuition, after all, isn’t actually a part of the brain; it is a word we use to describe a wide range of feelings, which usually conflict.
On the upside, the popular psychology literature is doing a great of popularizing science. And in that regard, the confusion is good because it is creates great debates like the one I have outlined here.