Thursday, August 18, 2011

Intuition - More Science from the Skeptic's Toolbox

From the TV sitcom Cheers:

Norm: Woody, do you believe in intuition?

Woody: No, though I have a strong feeling that someday I might.
Intuition is a very common decision making process, most of us at some time make use of our “gut instincts”. Often intuition is assumed to be the opposite of thoughtful rational thinking, and it is – however, sometimes our intuition serves us remarkably well.

Intuition is defined as “the direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension.” Where rational thinking can be slow, reflective and involve a lot of work, intuition can be applied quickly and with much less deliberation and cognitive investment. Intuition relies heavily upon perception; unfortunately our perceptions may often be false. Upon going with our gut, reasoning may then simply come into play in rationalizing our decisions. This causes us to use our cognition instead to support a bad decision based on the misperceived or incorrect observation.

However, studies of decision making based on intuition have shown that this rapid-fire and low cognitive cost thinking process can yield effective results. Over time much of our decision making is based on our previous experiences. For example, let’s say you need to determine how many gallons of paint will be required to paint your living room. Knowing the square footage each can of paint covers, you can measure the room and calculate the number of gallons required depending on the total surface area of wall to be painted. However, a professional painter may be able to more accurately predict the number of gallons required simply upon walking in and looking at the room. Here a low cognitive investment has yielded an accurate result.

The dangers with relying on intuition are obvious, however. Decisions can not only be rendered based on misperception, but also our cognitive bias’ can come into play as well. The implication is that intuition can be strongly influenced by wishful thinking; driving our decisions toward satisfying a possibly unconscious desire.

Here is where the importance of reasoning comes into play – humans are not well adapted to applying logic, probability, and decision theory without special training. More abstract problems are not easily linked to personal experience. It may also be subject to other outside influences such as peer pressure; the “Band Wagon” effect.

Consider, jury duty, for example. In a criminal trial the bar for rendering a guilty verdict is confidence “beyond a reasonable doubt”. I have served on juries where it was abundantly clear to me that some jurors took “reasonable doubt” to mean that they believed in their heart-and-soul that the accused was guilty. Yet when asked to justify their decision, they were unable to articulate any factual elements which supported their decision – they just “knew” the accused was guilty.

We all have been exposed to the differing responses expressed by different factions of public opinion from some of the more prominent criminal trials in recent history – from OJ Simpson to Casey Anthony, they illustrate the critical importance of distinguishing difference between intuition and rational thinking.
Intuition and Reasoning: A Dual-Process Perspective, Jonathan St B T Evans


DJan said...

I use my intuition regularly, without even thinking about it. When I meet someone new, I take an immediate like or dislike without knowing why, and I usually follow my first instincts. But I don't often analyze the reasoning, or lack of it, behind my feelings.

You always give me something to think about, Robert. I'll ponder this a bit more...

Mandy_Fish said...

Great post!

I have a difficult time trusting my intuition because my intuition is so subjective and so often wrong or at least heavily biased in my favor. Ha.

Paul said...

I use my intuition when I don't need to use my good common sense...Or is it the other way around ?

billy pilgrim said...

i think intuition is just our subconscious reflecting on a past experience and suggesting to our brain, hey this might happen again.

Rain said...

Relating to this, I recently served on a jury and when we were questioned, the defense attorney asked who knew us best and how would they say we made our decisions. Out of the twelve of us, I'd say an equal number said they used logic, with evaluating all the facts, weighing them, and then deciding, to those who said they went by gut instinct the most. I had to think about it but when it got my turn, I said my husband, of course, knows me best and he'd probably say by gut instinct. He's had a lot of examples of it over our 47 years of marriage where I will just say we need to get home or something like it, and don't have a reason but once there, it's obvious why as something needed us there. I taught my children to always listen to their own inner voice which I guess you could call intuition.

The interesting part is when we got narrowed down to six to serve on the actual jury, I think most all the ones on it were those who had said gut instinct which surprised the heck out of me as I expected they'd want those who at least claimed to primarily use logic. Considering an assistant DA and the defense attorney both had a hand in this, I don't know if it was what they often want for a jury or not but it did make me wonder.

I consider gut instinct though to be based on a lot of things and don't really consider it a supernatural aspect to a person. It comes out of past experience and evaluates how current facts apply. It is an awareness though of energy which makes you know a certain situation might not feel right. I won't say it's always served me right but I also don't ignore it when something comes along that is a challenge. When I override it (and sometimes I do), it's usually because i decided unfounded fear was playing too big a factor.

Robert the Skeptic said...

DJan Studies were done with employer interviews - it turns out that employers overwhelmingly made their decision to hire an applicant within a couple of minutes of meeting a job candidate. The remaining interview had little or noting to do with the final decision. Interesting.


Paul Well this probably happens both ways. I recall seeing an obituary for a student at OSU who had died in a fall. They said his last words were: "Watch this!!"

Billy The research generally supported that very hypothesis.

Rain [You had a duplicate comment so I deleted the duplicate]

Your comment underscores the premice that intuition can have an element of life experience, especially for people like you and me who have been on the planet a long while now.

In public policy, George Bush (the "decider") made a point that he made a lot of decsisions by his "gut instincts". I believe a lot of the sad economic legacy, and are two longest and most costly wars, were a result of his not making rational decisions keeping in mind the good of the overall country. A lot of his followers admired his gut instinct motivation, valuing it as patriotic. For me, I prefer to have the most intelligent and rational person in the oval office, regardeless of political party.

Antares Cryptos said...

The computing power of the biological brain is something that we're just beginning to unravel.

Intuition, I believe, is a natural subconscious assessment of anticipated probabilities and possibilities.

Not always "correct" or reliable, of course.

WV: "prove". *grin*

Paul said...

Oscar Wilde purportedly said on his death bed "This wallpaper is killing me."

Rain said...

I don't think we'll ever know how GW made his decisions given he also said he got direct advice from a god. He said what his bunch wanted to hear, but he might as well have been told what to do by somebody right here on earth who wasn't an earthly or heavenly father.

I'll give you an example of what I meant by my own use of instinct. When my daughter was pregnant with her second baby, we had been in Tucson and intended to take a leisurely trip back through Montana so we'd be there to help with the first grandchild when she delivered the second which was due in a month. As we started home, I told my husband I felt we needed to go straight back to the farm. The next night, when we'd barely gotten over the long drive (hadn't gotten over the long drive), in the middle of the night, we got the phone call to get down to Medford and made the drive as fast as we could. Our grandson was born the next day. Now the facts there were many including she was (according to the doctor and calculations) still a month away from delivery with plenty of time for a Montana trip. Facts though also are that babies sometimes come early. So my instinct was we needed to get back where we could be useful if second fact outweighed first. I've had a lot of things like that.

Frankly I think humans have lost a lot of their natural instincts, the things they needed when they lived a life closer to earth. Maybe because I live a life very close to animals and in the country, I am a big believer in being attuned to my own instincts but weighing in the facts. In the end though, I'd rather have finely tuned instincts than an encyclopedia worth of facts as frankly they can be so contradictory that in the end one must go one way or the other with which to use. Or become so handicapped with 'facts' that they are paralyzed for decision making.

And I saw that comment posted twice and was glad you deleted the second. Not sure why it does that sometime. Maybe a nervous twitch when I hit send :) My instincts do not tell me if that was the case-- nor does my memory ;)

Rain said...

You know when I posted it this time, it claimed word verification didn't match even though I thought it had. So I did it again. If it reposts again, that might explain the problem...

secret agent woman said...

I have often said that when I have an important decision to make I weigh the pros and cons of the available options, and then go with my gut.

Cognitive Dissenter said...

The problem with relying on feelings or the gut is they can be so easily manipulated by others. People who leave controlling religions or deceptive cults, for example, may swear off relying on any type of intuition once they discover how they were once deceived by it.

It takes time to come full circle and realize that intuition is a manifestation of the subconscious ability to pick up on things that the conscious does not, and is in fact crucial to the decision-making process. It's usually right.

Paul said...

People hear voices all of the time. So why is a person crazy. or disturbed, if he or she hears the voice of God ? And your definition of God may differ from mine.

Marylinn Kelly said...

My experiences of intuition relate primarily to a still "knowing" of something to which logic or reason would not apply, along the lines of what Rain described. I would never dream of calling upon intuition when serving on a jury, for, at least in cases on which I served, the guidelines for reaching a verdict are so clear. It doesn't matter what a jury member thinks, what matters is what can be proved.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos Nice way to describe it. True regarding reliability.

Paul ??

Rain We had a similar experience though it was the opposite - We were scheduled to be in Hawaii about the time our grand daughter was to be born. We had a "funny feeling" that we should not go and that the baby would be born while we were away.

But as it turned out, she wasn't born until after we returned from Hawaii; so our "instinct" was wrong.

So here is the thing with "coupling" feelings and events: We REMEMBER when events are coupled, we FORGET those which were uneventful. It is a pretty common and normal experience.

SecretAgent Well in the end we have to live with most of the decisions we make; there is certainly no fault in using all the faculties available to us.

Paul Because people who hear voices, be it god or animals or fairies, when no one is talking to them, are indeed mentally ill.

Marylinn I agree, though I would extend that reason beyond merely jury duty. Evaluating the efficacy of a medical treatment, for example. In some cases the inability to apply some reason can be harmful or even fatal.

Paul said...

Robert in some cases they are, but not all. And who determines what person is , or is not mentally ill ? Even psychiatrits disagree on this issue

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul Hearing voices is a symptom of a mental defect, specifically schizophrenia. However you are correct in that not all auditory hallucinations; this article explains that the latest edition of the DMS-V will show that some psychogenic voices can be attributed to stress.

Another source for hearing voices in a non-diseased brain are Hypnagogic hallucinations. I blogged about having one such event myself.

I think you would be hard pressed, though, to find many psychiatrists or psychologists who would not agree that hearing voices is psychogenic in origin.

Mary Witzl said...

I believe that what we often see as intuition is really a combination of wishful thinking and a fine layering of past experiences that serve us so well we're not even aware of them. And as Mandy has said, intuition is generally biased in our favor. When people use intuition against their own prejudices or favor, I find it a lot more convincing.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Mary Intuition is just that, though our confidence in it is often overrated. It is a difficult thing for humans to go against their "gut instincts".

This has been shown many times in aviation where pilots assessment of a situation sometimes is at odds with what the instruments say. Deadly crashes have resulted where pilots have ignored instruments and gone instead with their intuition. They are now trained to believe their instruments and ignore their "gut" when such decision conflicts arise. There is even a cockpit voice alarm that blares: "DON'T THINK - PULL UP!"

Nance said...

I think of intuitive processes as the Short Form and language-based reasoning as the Long Form of mind work. The Short Form is pre-verbal and, possibly, dates back to early human survival instinct in that it quickly processes data from our circumstances and prompts action without having to wait for encoding data into language and decoding language-based "decisions" into action. Logic can be used in the service of almost any end (watch how the tea party uses logical reasoning on an issue to reach one sort of conclusion and progressives use logical reasoning to reach nearly the opposite conclusion.

Fortunately, we are able to do both and can employ them in a checks and balances system, if we will.

I like Billy Pilgrim's comment.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Nance Short Form versus Long Form is a very apt description. Yes, there most likely is an evolutionary basis - our prehistoric ancestors probably could not afford the risk of deliberating if the rustle in the bushes was just the wind or a lion about to pounce.

Projected onto political policy, NOT making rational decisions can, and is, resulting in disaster, the Tea Party is an excellent example. Clearly ideology trumps logic and reasoning when personal and political agendas are at stake. It makes my head hurt.

Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living said...

I admit, I go with my gut.
Today I attended a presentation by Barbara Roberts. She has a book on Face Reading. Apparently she has a 95-100% accuracy rate on face reading and telling from facial features, like we used to do in the past, if people are criminals, etc. She's been on national TV, FBI, and police use her to analyze photos of faces etc. I'm sure you're like my husband and say that's BS. Check out her book. I think I might blog about her. Not sure.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy I am not familiar with "Face Reading" though a quick check of my sources finds it under Personology/physiognomy: "... which holds that outward appearance, especially the face, is the key to a person's predominant temper and character."

Though I am not sure what exactly she is able to discern from facial features, the claim of 95-100% accuracy for subjective evaluations seems difficult to believe. Who did this measurement and under what conditions, I wonder? There are psychics who claim that they have solved thousands of crimes; conversely there are police officials who state that psychics have never led them to a body, missing person or provided any useful evidence.

Since the physical components of our facial features are predominately genetically formed but our persona is largely the result of our life experiences, I would need a bit more evidence before I accept this claim. There are testimonials on her web site but testimonials are based on cognitive bias and are worthless as evidence.

You've given me a new topic to research. Thanks.

KleinsteMotte said...

Using intuition as an way to determine a person's criminal activity is truly sad. I guess that when the jurors are selected they ought be tested for their ability to apply logic using the skills you mention.
Our gut feelings are for too subjective.