DANCE WITH THE ELEPHANT: LIFE'S COSMIC EQUATION
"Because Your Life is Worth it!"
The Powers and Perils of Intuition
Instinct has the power to hush reason. But when is it safe to go with your gut? Researchers may remain uncertain about the reliability of intuition, but it is a difficult force to deny.
After a career spent pondering the connections between subjective and objective truth, feeling and fact, and intuition and reality, I'm predisposed to welcoming unbidden hunches. I once took an instant liking to a fellow teenager, to whom I've now been married nearly 40 years. Upon meeting job applicants, before I can explain my feelings, my gut sometimes reacts within seconds. As a sign in Albert Einstein's office is rumored to have read, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
But from science and everyday life, I know that my intuition—an effortless, immediate, unreasoned sense of truth—sometimes errs. My gut tells me that Reno is east of Los Angeles and that Atlanta is east of Detroit, but I am wrong. "The first principle," said Einstein's fellow physicist, Richard Feynman, "is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."There is also the quandary of mining untapped intuitive powers. When hiring, firing and investing, should we plug into our "right brain" premonitions? Or, with bright people so often believing demonstrably dumb things, do we instead need more "left brain" rationality?
It's true: Intuition is a big part of human decision making. But the complementary truth is that intuition often errs.
In July 2002, a Russian airliner's computer-guidance system instructed its pilot to ascend as another jet approached in the sky over Switzerland. At the same time, a Swiss air-traffic controller—whose computerized system was down—offered a human judgment: descend. Faced with conflicting advice, the pilot's intuitive response was to trust another human's intuition. Tragically, the two planes collided midair, killing everyone onboard.
The history of science tells story after story of challenges to human intuition. To our ancestors, the sun's daily travels had at least two plausible explanations: Either the sun was circling Earth, or Earth was spinning while the sun stood still. Intuition preferred the first explanation. Galileo's scientific observations demanded the second.
Psychology, too, is replete with compelling examples of how people fool themselves. Even the most intelligent people make predictable and costly intuitive errors; coaches, athletes, investors, interviewers, gamblers and psychics fall prey to well-documented illusory intuitions. It's shocking how vulnerable we are to forming false memories, misjudging reality and mispredicting our own behavior. Our intuition errs.
Studies suggest, for instance, that people mispredict the durability and intensity of their emotions after a romantic breakup, losing an election, winning a game and being insulted. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., and his colleagues have studied at length our ability to affectively forecast. They've found that while most people facing a personal catastrophe expect emotional wounds to be enduring, such expectations are often wrong.
Take hungry shoppers, for instance, who buy more impulsively than those who shop after dinner. When hungry, we mispredict how gross fried doughnuts will seem when we're full. When sated, however, we mispredict how yummy that late-night doughnut might be. Various other studies have found that people tend to overestimate how much their well-being would be affected by warmer winters, relocations, football victories, losing weight, and having more free time. Even extreme events—winning the lottery or suffering a paralyzing accident—affect long-term happiness to a lesser degree than most people suppose.
Our intuitive theory seems to be: We want; we get; we are happy. If true, this article would be shorter. In reality, note Gilbert and his colleague Timothy Wilson, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia, we often "miswant." People who dream of a holiday on a deserted tropical island may in fact be disappointed when they see "how much they require daily structure, intellectual stimulation or regular infusions of Pop Tarts." Our intuition tells us that if our desired candidate or team wins we will be delighted for a long while, but studies repeatedly reveal that emotional traces of good tidings evaporate more rapidly than we expect.
It's after negative events that we're particularly prone to misintuiting the durability of our emotions. People being tested for HIV expect to feel misery over bad news and elation over good news for weeks after hearing the results. And yet, just five weeks later, the recipients of bad news are less distraught and the recipients of good news are less elated than they first anticipated.
This occurs because people neglect the speed and power of their "psychological immune system," say Gilbert and Wilson, which includes strategies for rationalizing, discounting, forgiving and limiting trauma. Being largely ignorant of this emotional recovery system, we accommodate illnesses, disabilities, romantic breakups and defeats more readily than we intuitively expect. "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning," reflected the Psalmist.
Intuition is bigger than we realize. It feeds our expertise, creativity, love and spirituality. It is a wonder. But it's also perilous. Today's cognitive science aims not to destroy intuition but to fortify it, to sharpen our thinking and deepen our wisdom. Scientists who expose intuition's flaws note that it works well in some areas, but needs restraints and checks in others. In realms from sports to business to spirituality, we now understand how perilous intuitions often go before a fall, and how we can therefore think smarter, even while listening to the creative whispers of our unseen mind.
Here's 20 videos that feature major topics in the forthcoming book: