I Knew You Would Say That
A review of David G. Myers’ Intuition: It’s Powers and Perils.
Imagine yourself a contestant on the classic television game show Let’s Make a Deal. You must choose one of three doors, behind one of which is a brand new automobile (while the other two harbor goats). You choose door number one. Host Monty Hall, who knows what is behind all the doors, shows you what’s behind door number two, a goat, then inquires: would you like keep the door you chose or switch? It’s 50/50 so it doesn’t matter, right?
Wrong. You had a one in three chance to start, but now that Monty has shown you one of the losing doors, you have a 2/3rds chance of winning by switching doors. Think of it this way: There are 10 doors; you choose door number one and Monty shows you door numbers 2 through 9, all losers. Now you would switch because your chances increase from 1/10 to 9/10. This is a counterintuitive problem that drives people batty, including mathematicians, and is just one of numerous examples presented by Hope College psychologist David G. Myers in his latest book on the “powers and perils” of intuition.
The perils are legion. Gamblers’ intuitions, for example, are notoriously flawed (to the profitable delight of casino operators). You’ve hit five reds in a row on the roulette wheel. Should you stay with red because you are on a “hot streak” or should you switch because black is “due”? It doesn’t matter because the roulette wheel has no memory, but try telling that to the happy gambler whose pile of chips grows before his eyes.
What about hot streaks in sports? Intuitively don’t we just know that when Kobe’s hot he can’t miss? Intuitively yes, but Myers presents the findings of a fascinating 1985 study of “hot hands” in basketball by Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone, and Amos Tversky, who analyzed every basket shot by the Philadelphia 76ers for an entire season. They discovered that the probability of a player hitting a second shot did not increase following an initial successful basket (beyond what one would expect by chance and the average shooting percentage of the player). What they found is so counter-intuitive that it is jarring to the sensibilities: the number of streaks, or successful baskets in sequence, did not exceed the predictions of a statistical coin-flip model. That is, if you conduct a coin flipping experiment and record heads or tails, you will shortly encounter streaks. On average and in the long run, you will flip five heads or tails in a row once in every 32 sequences of five tosses. (Since we are dealing with professional basketball players instead of coins, adjustments have to be made. If a player’s shooting percentage is 60 percent, for example, we would expect, by chance, that he will sink six baskets in a row once for every 20 sequences of six shots attempted.) Players may feel “hot” when they have games that fall into the high range of chance expectations, but science shows that this intuition is an illusion.
Myers systematically catalogues the countless ways our intuitions about the world lead us astray: we rewrite our past to fit present beliefs and moods, we badly misinterpret the source and meaning of our emotions, we are subject to the hindsight bias where we falsely surmise that we knew it all along, we succumb to the self-serving bias where we think we are far more important than we really are, we see illusory correlations that do not exist (superstitions), and we fall for the confirmation bias, where we look for and find evidence for what we already believe.
Since I’m a scientist and skeptic Myers’ demonstration that intuition cannot be trusted triggered my own confirmation bias — everyone knows that intuition is just mushy new age nonsense. But as Myers demonstrates through countless well-documented experiments, our intuitions about intuition may be wrong. There is something else going on in the brain. That something else, for lack of a better word (and I do wish there were a better word), is intuition, or what Myers defines as “our capacity for direct knowledge, for immediate insight without observation or reason.”
Consider the research by Harvard’s Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, who discovered that the evaluation of teachers by students who saw a mere 30-second video of the teacher were remarkably similar to those of students who had taken the course. Even three two-second video clips of the teacher yielded a striking .72 correlation with the course student evaluations!
Occasionally the staccato pacing of Myers’ scientific analysis is jarringly punctuated with such sentimental expressions as “What the conscious mind cannot understand, the heart knows,” and a few too many pithy and over-familiar witticisms of writers and poets. But these are easily overlooked by the hundreds of studies presented to make his case that intuition is a fruitful field of scientific analysis. For example, I was stunned by, and still do not quite know what to make of the experiments by researchers on how unattended stimuli can subtly affect us. Scientists flashed emotionally positive scenes (kitten, romantic couple) or negative scenes (werewolf, dead body) for 47 milliseconds before subjects viewed slides of people. Although subjects reported seeing only a flash of light for the initial emotionally-linked scenes, they gave more positive ratings to people whose photos had been associated with the positive scenes. Something registered somewhere in the brain beneath awareness.
This effect is most striking in brain-damaged patients. Myers describes a woman who is unable to recognize her own hand, and when asked to use her thumb and forefinger to estimate the size of an object was unable to do it. Yet when she reached for the object her thumb and forefinger were correctly placed. Another study revealed that stroke patients who have lost a portion of their visual cortex may be consciously blind in part of their field of vision. When shown a series of sticks they report seeing nothing, yet unerringly identify whether the unseen sticks are vertical or horizontal. That’s weird.
Even for us non brain-damaged folks, subtle perception and learning is ongoing, especially in the social sphere where, Myers speculates, evolution would have designed our brains to be finely tuned to important relationships. The best predictor of how well a psychotherapist will work out for you, for example, is your initial reaction in the first five minutes of the first session (not unlike the first impression on a first date). And research supports another intuition we have that women are more intuitively sensitive to subtle cues: women are better lie detectors than men, are superior in discerning which of two people in a photo was the other’s supervisor, and were more able to tell whether a male-female couple in a photograph is a genuine romantic relationship or a posed phony one.
What is going on here is not fully understood, and I worry that such research will be used to bolster belief in psychic power. Before we say something is out of this world we must first establish that it is not in this world. That has yet to be done with intuition. Intuition is not subliminal perception; it is subtle perception and learning — knowing without knowing that you know. A full scientific explanation is still forthcoming because this is a relatively new field of inquiry, but Myers’s book brilliantly establishes intuition as a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry.
(Yale University Press, 2004, ISBN 0300095317)
This review was originally published in Los Angeles Times.