The Trouble With Intuition
Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris, authors of the Invisible Gorilla are at it again- let me know what you think.
Intuition does have its uses, but it should not be exalted above analysis. Intuition can’t be beat when we are deciding which ice cream we like more, which songs are catchier, which politician is most charismatic. The essence of those examples is the absence of any objective standard of quality—there’s no method of analysis that will decisively determine which supermodel is more attractive or which orchestra audition was superior. The key to successful decision making is knowing when to trust your intuition and when to be wary of it. And that’s a message that has been drowned out in the recent celebration of intuition, gut feelings, and rapid cognition.
There is, moreover, one class of intuitions that consistently leads us astray—dangerously astray. These intuitions are stubbornly resistant to analysis, and it is exactly these intuitions that we shouldn’t trust. Unfortunately, they are also the intuitions that we find the most compelling: mistaken intuitions about how our own minds work.
If you believe you will notice unexpected events regardless of how much of your attention is devoted to other tasks, you won’t be vigilant enough for possible risks. Consider talking or texting on a cellphone while driving. Most people who do this believe, or act as though they believe, that as long as they keep their eyes on the road, they will notice anything important that happens, like a car suddenly braking or a child chasing a ball into the street. Cellphones, however, impair our driving not because holding one takes a hand off the wheel, but because holding a conversation with someone we can’t see—and often can’t even hear well—uses up a considerable amount of our finite capacity for paying attention.
The kouros example is effective because it capitalizes on our tendency to generalize from a single positive association, leading to the conclusion that intuition trumps reason. But in this case, a bit of thought would show that conclusion to be unlikely, even within the confined realm of art fakery. Think about how often experts throughout history have been duped by forgers because intuition told them that they were looking at the real thing. It is ironic that Gladwell (knowingly or not) exploits one of the greatest weaknesses of intuition—our tendency to blithely infer cause from anecdotes—in making his case for intuition’s extraordinary power.