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The Powers and Perils of Intuition
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“The heart has its reasons which reason does not know."
~Pascal, Pensees, 1670
“He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool.”
“Buried deep within each and every one of us, there is an instinctive, heart-felt awareness” that can guide our behavior. So proclaimed Prince Charles in a 2000 lecture. Trust your gut instincts.
Prince Charles has much company. “I’m a gut player. I rely on my instincts,” explained President George W. Bush in justifying his decision to launch the Iraq war, after earlier talking with Vladimir Putin and declaring himself “able to get a sense of his soul.”
“Within the first minute [of meeting Kim Jong-un] I’ll know, declared President Trump. “My touch, my feel—that’s what I do.” Afterwards he added, “We had a great chemistry—you understand how I feel about chemistry.” The heart has its reasons.
But is there also wisdom to physicist Richard Feynman’s channeling the skepticism of King Solomon’s Proverb: “The first principle,” said Feynman, “is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
In sifting intuition’s powers and perils, psychological science has some wisdom.
First, our out-of-sight, automatic, intuitive information processing is HUGE. In Psychology, 12th Edition, Nathan DeWall and I offer some examples:
- Automatic processing: We glide through life mostly on autopilot. Our information processing is mostly implicit, unconscious, behind the scenes—and often guided by “fast and frugal” heuristics (mental shortcuts).
- Intuitive expertise: After mastering driving (or chess), people can react to situations intuitively, without rational analysis.
- Reading others: We are skilled at reading “thin slices” of behavior—as when judging someone’s warmth from a 6-second video clip.
- Blindsight: Some blind people even display “blindsight”—they can intuitively place an envelope in a mail slot they cannot consciously see.
Second, our intuition is perilous. Psychology is flush with examples of smart people’s predictable and sometimes tragic intuitive errors:
- Human lie detection: People barely surpass chance when intuiting whether others are lying or truth-telling. (American presidents might want to remember this when judging Putin’s or Kim Jong-un’s trustworthiness.)
- Intuitive prejudice: As demonstrated in some police responses to ambiguous situations, implicit biases can—without any conscious malevolent intent—affect our perceptions and reactions. (Is that man pulling out a gun or a phone?)
- Intuitive fears: We fear things that kill people vividly and memorably (because we intuitively judge risks by how readily images of a threat come to mind). Thus we may—mistakenly—fear flying more than driving, shark attacks more than drowning, school mass shootings more than street and home shootings.
- The “interview illusion”: Given our ability to read warmth from thin slices, it’s understandable that employment interviewers routinely overestimate their ability to predict future job success from unstructured get-acquainted interviews. But aptitude tests, work samples, job-knowledge tests, and peer ratings of past job performance are all better predictors. (Even the lengthiest of interviews—the mate-selection process—is a fragile predictor of long-term marital success.)
The bottom line: Intuition—automatic, implicit, unreasoned thoughts and feelings—grows from our experience, feeds our creativity, and guides our lives. Intuition is powerful. But it also is perilous, especially when we overfeel and underthink. Unchecked, uncritical intuition sometimes leads us into ill-fated relationships, feeds overconfident predictions, and even leads us into war.
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