Chapter 4: Intuitions About Our Past and Future

“You don’t know your own mind.”
~Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversation, 1738

Thanks to the three pounds of wet neural tissue folded and jammed into our skulls, we are the world’s greatest wonder. With circuitry more complex than the planet’s telephone networks, we process boundless information, consciously and unconsciously. Right now your visual system is disassembling the light striking your retina into millions of nerve impulses, distributing these for parallel processing, and then reassembling a clear and colorful image. From ink on the page to a perceived image to meaning, all in an instant. Our species, give us credit, has had the inventive genius to invent cell phones and harvest stem cells; to unlock the atom and crack and map our genetic code; to travel to the moon and tour the sunken Titanic. Not bad, considering that we share 90 percent of our DNA with a cow. Just by living, we acquire intuitive expertise that makes most of life effortless. Understandably, Shakespeare’s Hamlet extolled us as “noble in reason!…infinite in faculties!…in apprehension how like a god!” We are rightly called Homo sapiens—wise humans.

But as Pascal taught three hundred years ago, no single truth is ever sufficient, because the world is complex. Any truth, separated from its complementary truth, is a half-truth. It’s true that our intuitive information-processing powers are impressive for their efficiency, yet it is also true that they are prone to predictable errors and misjudgments. With remarkable ease, we form and sustain false beliefs. T. S. Eliot called us “the hollow men…headpiece filled with straw.” We wise humans are sometimes fools….

Chapter Contents

Constructing Memories
Revising our life histories
Dubious testimonials
Moods and intuitions
The misinformation effect
Misreading our Own Minds
Mispredicting our Own Feelings
Mispredicting our Own Behavior
Predicting our everyday behavior
Illusory optimism