As a research psychologist and communicator of psychological science, I have spent a career pondering the connections between subjective and objective truth, between feeling and fact, between intuition and reality. I’m predisposed to welcome unbidden hunches, creative ideas, the Spirit’s workings. I once took an instant liking to a fellow teenager, to whom I’ve now been married for nearly forty years. When I meet job applicants, my gut reactions sometimes kick in within seconds, before I can explain my feelings in words. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” said a sign in Albert Einstein’s office.
But from science and everyday life, I also know that my intuition sometimes errs. My geographical intuition tells me that Reno is east of Los Angeles, that Rome is south of New York, that Atlanta is east of Detroit. But I am wrong, wrong, and 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.”
For Webster and for this book, intuition is our capacity for direct knowledge, for immediate insight without observation or reason. “Intuitive thinking is perception-like, rapid, effortless,” notes Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman. By contrast, “deliberate thinking is reasoning-like, critical, and analytic.”
Do we all have untapped intuitive powers? Are we worthy of Shakespeare’s acclaim, “in apprehension how like a god!”? When hiring, firing, and investing should we plug into our “right brain” premonitions? Should we follow the example of Star War’s Luke Skywalker, by turning off our computers and trusting the Force?
Or are skeptics right to define intuition as our inner knowing that we’re right, whether we are or not? Are we like “the hollow man . . . headpiece filled with straw” (T. S. Eliot)? With bright people so often believing demonstrably dumb things, do we instead need more “left brain” rationality? To think and act smarter, should we more energetically check intuition against reality and subject creative hunch to skeptical scrutiny?
The Acclaimed Powers of Intuition
In his BBC Reith Lecture in 2000, Prince Charles lifted up the wisdom of the heart. “Buried deep within each and every one of us there is an instinctive, heart felt awareness that provides—if we allow it to—the most reliable guide as to whether or not our actions are really in the long term interests of our planet and all the life it supports. . . . Wisdom, empathy and compassion have no place in the empirical world yet traditional wisdoms would ask ‘without them are we truly human?’” We need, said the future king, “to listen rather more to the common sense emanating from our hearts.”
In this postmodernist New Age, Prince Charles has plenty of company. Scholars, popular writers, and workshop gurus are training people to trust their hearts as well as their heads. You have lots of options if you want to develop your intuition—what Apollo 14 astronaut and Institute of Noetic Sciences founder Edgar Mitchell calls an “experience of inner knowing that [can be] experienced just as concretely as logical thought.” You can take a Caribbean Intuition Cruise, where “leading intuitives will offer a comprehensive program for using intuition to enhance every area of your life.” To cultivate your “inner, intuitive resources” you can explore the Intuition Network’s website. You can listen to “Intuition Training” audiotapes. You can subscribe to Intuition magazine to explore the “natural skill anyone can cultivate.” In other magazines you can read scores of articles on topics such as how to “let intuition be your guide” (by giving “yourself permission to listen to . . . your intuitive voice” and learning to exercise your “intuitive muscle”).
You can go even deeper with one of the dozens of intuition guidebooks that promise to develop your sixth sense, to harness your inner wisdom, to unlock the power of your subconscious mind.
If it’s healing you’re looking for, The Intuitive Healer: Accessing Your Inner Physician suggests how the “personalized medicine chest” in your intuitive mind can help you avert illness. But you can also find “five steps to physical, emotional, and sexual wellness” in Dr. Judith Orloff’s Guide to Intuitive Healing_and learn “how to trust your intuition for guidance and healing” in _The Intuitive Heart. For cooks and dieters there’s even Intuitive Cooking and Intuitive Eating.
Would you like children to experience “whole-brain” learning? Suggest that their school administrators read The Intuitive Principal and their teachers study Understanding and Teaching the Intuitive Mind. If your child is academically challenged, you might consider The Intuitive Approach to Reading and Learning Abilities. For home use, there is The Wise Child: A Spiritual Guide to Nurturing Your Child’s Intuition.
Are you a business person, manager, or investor? Perhaps The Intuitive Manager, The Intuitive Trader, or Practical Intuition for Success would help.
Do you want to expand your spiritual consciousness? There is a buffet of options, including Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, Divine Intuition, and Intuitive Living: A Sacred Path.
Or are you simply interested in wisdom and effective living? Then you may want The Intuitive Edge or Practical Intuition. Perhaps you will want to dig deeper and study Intuition: The Inside Story. Where does one begin? If you are an intuitive, You Already Know What to Do, asserts my favorite title (by Sharon Franquemont, a delightful intuition trainer whose book declares that “intuition is my passion.”).
The Powers of Intuition
Who can disagree with the Utne Reader’s observation that “Intuition is hot”? But what shall we make of this new cottage industry? Intuition authors and trainers—”intuitives,” as they call themselves—seem largely oblivious to psychology’s new explorations of how we process information. Are their intuitions about intuition valid? Is our consciousness sometimes invaded by unbidden truth, which is there for us to behold if only we would listen to the still small voice within? Or are their intuition writings to cognitive science what professional wrestling is to athletics? Do they offer little more than a make-believe world, an illusory reality in substitution for the real thing?
The emerging understanding, as we will see, is double-sided. “There are trivial truths and great truths,” declared the physicist Niels Bohr. “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”* And so it is with human intuition, which has surprising powers and perils. On the one hand, recent cognitive science reveals a fascinating unconscious mind—another mind backstage—that Freud never told us about. More than we realized over a decade ago, thinking occurs not on stage, but off stage, out of sight. As we will see in chapters to come, studies of “automatic processing,” “subliminal priming,” “implicit memory,” “heuristics,” “spontaneous trait inference,” right-brain processing, instant emotions, nonverbal communication, and creativity unveil our intuitive capacities. Thinking, memory, and attitudes all operate on two levels (conscious and deliberate, and unconscious and automatic)—dual processing, today’s researchers call it. We know more than we know we know.
Blindsight. Having lost a portion of their brain’s visual cortex to surgery or stroke, people may be consciously blind in part of their field of vision. Shown a series of sticks in the blind field, they report seeing nothing. Yet when asked to guess whether the sticks are vertical or horizontal, they may unerringly offer the correct response. When told, “you got them all right,” they are astounded. These people clearly know more than they know they know. They may reach to shake an outstretched hand that they cannot see. There are, it seems, little minds—”parallel processing” systems—operating unseen.
Indeed, “sight unseen” is how University of Durham psychologist David Milner describes the brain’s two visual systems—”one that gives us our conscious perceptions, and one that guides our actions.” The second he calls the “zombie within.” Milner describes a brain-damaged woman who can see the hairs on the back of a hand and yet be unable to recognize a hand. Asked to use her thumb and forefinger to estimate an object’s size, she can’t do it. Though when she reaches for the object her thumb and forefinger are appropriately placed. She knows more than she is aware of.
- Prosopagnosia. Patients with this disorder have suffered damage to a part of the brain involved in face recognition. After losing the pertinent temporal lobe area, patients may have complete sensation but incomplete perception. They can sense visual information—indeed, may accurately report the features of a face yet be unable to recognize it. When shown an unfamiliar face, they do not react. When shown a loved one’s face, however, their body displays recognition. Their autonomic nervous system responds with measurable perspiration and speeded pulse. What the conscious mind cannot understand, the heart knows.
Everyday perception. Consider your own taken-for-granted capacity to intuitively recognize a face. As you look at a photo, your brain acts like a multitasking computer. It breaks the visual information into subdimensions, such as color, depth, movement, and form, and works on each aspect simultaneously, using different neural networks, before reassembling the components. (Damage the pertinent neural network and you may become unable to perceive a subdimension, such as movement.) Finally, your brain compares the reconstructed image with previously stored images. Voilà! Instantly and effortlessly you recognize, among billions of humans, someone you’ve not seen in five years.
Neural impulses travel a million times slower than a computer’s internal messages, yet our brain humbles any computer with its instant recognition. “You can buy a chess machine that beats a master,” notes vision researcher Donald Hoffman, “but can’t yet buy a vision machine that beats a toddler’s vision.” If intuition is immediate knowing, without reasoned analysis, then perceiving is intuition par excellence.
So, is human intelligence more than logic? Is thinking more than ordering words? Is comprehension more than conscious cognition? Absolutely. Cognitive psychologist George Miller embodied this truth by telling of two passengers leaning against the ship’s rail, staring at the sea. “’There sure is a lot of water in the ocean,’ said one. ‘Yes,’ answered his friend, ‘and we’ve only seen the top of it.’”
The Perils of Intuition
It’s true: intuition is not only hot, it is also a big part of human decision making. But the complementary truth is that intuition often errs. Lay aside, for the moment, your rational mind and the analytical tools that serve it. Put down that measuring stick and take a deep breath, relax your body, quiet your “talk-addicted mind,” and tune in to that sixth sense. Listen to its soft song as it tells you, immediately and directly . . .
a. How far up this triangle is the dot?
b. Do the dimensions of these two box tops differ?
c. Which of these two line segments (AB or BC) is longer?
d. Line CD is what percent as long as AB?
e. Are you familiar with this phrase?
ABIRDIN THETHE HAND
The truths refute our intuition. The dot is exactly halfway up the triangle (though our intuition—our direct knowledge—says it’s higher). The two box tops, as a measurement or a comparative tracing indicates, are identical in size and shape (though our intuition tells us otherwise). Line segment AB is one-third longer (though our intuition tells us the lines are the same). Line segment CD is 100 percent as long as AB (though our intuition tells us CD is shorter). And you probably are not familiar with the phrase “a bird in the the hand.”
You perhaps have seen some of these perceptual effects, which are among dozens of illustrations of how our brain’s rules for perceiving the world—rules that usually enable correct intuition—sometimes lead us astray, as many injured drivers and pilots can testify (and dead ones cannot). Things may appear one way yet really be quite different. Are intuition’s errors limited to perceptual tricks? Consider some simple questions. Again, follow the intuitives’ advice to silence your linear, logical, left-brain mind, thus opening yourself to the whispers of your inner wisdom.
Imagine (or ask someone to imagine) folding a sheet of paper on itself 100 times. Roughly how thick would it then be?
Given our year with 365 days, a group needs 366 people to ensure that at least two of its members share the same birthday. How big must the group be to have a 50 percent chance of finding a birthday match?
Imagine yourself participating in this study, patterned after a 1930s experiment by psychologist Lloyd Humphreys. On each of 100 trials, you are asked to guess whether a light that goes on 70 percent of the time will go on. You get a dollar each time your guess (“yes” or “no”) is correct. Visualize the first ten trials.
Once again, our intuitions usually err. Given a 0.1-millimeter-thick sheet, the thickness after 100 folds, each doubling the preceding thickness, would be 800 trillion times the distance between the earth and the sun. Only twenty-three people are needed to give better than even odds of any two people having the same birthday. (Look out at a soccer match with a referee and the odds are 50-50 that two people on the field have the same birthday.) And though people typically guess “yes” about 70 percent of the time, their intuitions leave them with emptier pockets—about $58—than if they simply guessed “yes” all the time, producing about $70.*
Ah, but shall we say with some postmodernists that intuitive truth is self-validating, and that we must not judge it by the canons of westernized logic? No. With these mind teaser problems, rational analysis defines truth. On the perceptual problems, the ruler rules; it measures an objective reality. On the little gambling game, the rare person who follows logic leaves with enough money to take friends out to a lobster dinner, while the intuitive and friends at the next table can afford only spaghetti.
To be sure, these puzzle games are played on rationality’s home court. Logic and measurement, anyone might grant, are ideally suited to such tasks. Consider, then, the tension between intuition and rational analysis in more important realms.
The history of science is a story of one challenge to our intuition after another. The heart, our hearts once told us, is the seat of the mind and emotions. Today, the heart remains our symbol for love, but science has long overtaken intuition on this issue. It’s your brain, not your heart, that falls in love.
For all human history, our ancestors daily observed the sun cutting across the sky. This had at least two plausible explanations: a) the sun was circling the earth, or b) the earth was spinning while the sun stood still. Intuition preferred the first. Galileo’s scientific observations demanded the second.
My own field of psychological science has sometimes confirmed popular intuitions. An enduring, committed marriage is conducive to adults’ happiness and children’s thriving. The media modeling of violent and sexually impulsive behaviors do affect viewers’ attitudes and actions (though the same studies contradict people’s intuitions that it’s only others who are influenced). Perceived freedom and feelings of control are conducive to happiness and achievement. But at the same time, our unaided intuitions may tell us that familiarity breeds contempt, that dreams predict the future, and that high self-esteem is invariably beneficial—ideas that aren’t supported by the available evidence. Even the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem acknowledged in its report that the “intuitively correct” presumption—that high self-esteem leads to desirable behaviors—has been but weakly confirmed. (It is true that those with high self-esteem are less at risk for depression, but high self-esteem also has a dark side. Much violence results from the puncturing of inflated egos.)
Recent research also relegates other intuitively correct axioms of pop psychology to the dustbin.
- Although genetic predispositions and peer and media influences shape children, direct parental nurture has surprisingly little effect on their developing personalities and tastes. (Adopted siblings do not develop more similar personalities as a result of being reared in the same home. And identical twins are not more alike in personality if reared together than if reared in separate homes.)
- People typically do not repress acutely painful or upsetting experiences. Holocaust survivors, children who have witnessed a parent’s murder, and rape victims remember the horror all too well.
- Experiments have similarly deflated people’s intuitions that quartz crystals uplift their spirits, that subliminal self-help tapes have reprogrammed their unconscious mind, and that “therapeutic touch” (moving hands near the body) has curative effects. (Those given fake crystals or supposed subliminal tapes, for example, exhibit the same results.)
“Science,” said Richard Feynman, “is a long history of learning how not to fool ourselves.”
Why Does It Matter?
Does comprehending the powers and perils of intuition matter? I contend that it matters greatly.
Judges’ and jurors’ intuitions determine the fate of lives. (Is she telling the truth? Will he do it again if released? Does applying the death penalty deter homicide?)
Investors’ intuitions affect fortunes. (Has the market bottomed? Are tech stocks due for another plunge? Is it time to shift into bonds?)
Coaches’ intuitions guide their decisions about whom to play. (Does she have the hot hand tonight? Is he in a batting slump?)
Clinicians’ intuitions steer their practice. (Is he at risk for suicide? Was she sexually abused?)
Intuitions shape our fears (do we fear the right things?), impressions (are our stereotypes accurate?), and relationships (does she like me?). Intuitions influence presidents in times of crisis, gamblers at the table, and personnel directors when eyeing applicants. As a high-ranking Texas official said of the theory that the death penalty deters murder, “I just feel in my gut it must be true.” Our gut-level intuitions have helped us all avert misfortunes, but sometimes they have led us into misfortune. “Nobody can dictate my behavior,” said Diana, Princess of Wales, in her last interview before that fateful ride. “I work through instinct, and instinct is my best counselor.”
So, yes, it’s worth our while to examine the powers and perils of our human intuition. It’s worth our while to sift fact from fancy. It’s worth our while to seek wisdom. Perhaps, with apologies to Reinhold Niebuhr, we could use a second Serenity Prayer:
God, give us grace
to accept the things that are true,
courage to challenge the things which are untrue,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
For endnotes to the Introduction, see Intuition: Its Powers & Perils