If you wanted to fathom the workings of a complex corporation, with many units, goals, and operations, you would not limit your investigation to its CEO. Although his decisions might be most visible, you would realize that thousands of other employees supported him and gave his decisions effect (and perhaps had their own agendas, as well). This is one of the metaphors that cognitive psychologist David G. Myers uses in describing the relationship between our conscious mind and our automatic mental processes, which he calls intuition.
Intuition: Its Powers and Perils probably could not have been written even a decade ago. Its depth comes from relatively recent discoveries in brain science and hundreds of experiments over the last two decades in cognitive psychology--the study of how we think. Myers can refer to brain science to mount a cogent case that certain mental processes are genuinely automatic and nonconscious; and, when he talks about the astonishing capabilities and systematic errors of intuition, he can cite chapter and verse from cognitive experiments. There are fifty-six pages of endnotes in this non-academic book.
Until quite recently, psychoanalytic theory dominated the psychology of the unconscious mind. For Freud, the unconscious was a realm of rebellious, irrational drives, urges, and conflicts. He wrote: "The unconscious is the true psychical reality; in its innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world." Although the unconscious shaped our ideas and attitudes, it did so in ways supposedly impossible to decipher without extended (and expensive) professional assistance in using methods such as free-associating, interpreting dreams, and analyzing slips of the tongue. Serious psychologists administered Rorschach tests, hoping to discern the handiwork of our unconscious mind in our reactions to inkblots. Nor were these and other schools, such as Jungian psychology, very interested in understanding thinking. Pessimists take note: Much in psychology and psychotherapy has changed for the better.
The Automatic Brain
In his classic, Psychology: The Science of Mental Life, George A. Miller defined as unconscious "any mental process whose operation can be inferred from a person's behavior, but of which the person himself remains unaware, and which he is unable to report or discuss." Myers uses the term "unconscious," never the term "subconscious," by which Objectivists, following the practice of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, refer to mental processes and contents not in a person's immediate spotlight of awareness. Myers seems to include both domains when he discusses "thinking without awareness," but his emphasis is on what occurs "outside of consciousness"--not on how accessible or inaccessible those occurrences might be to a person. For example, he describes apparently unconscious processes (a newborn infant's innate responses) and others that seem subconscious (forming an unverbalized impression of someone during an interview).
"Intuition" is probably the best single term for the extended family of mental processes that Myers assembles. These range from our feats of visual perception and split-second timing on the tennis court, to hardwired emotional reactions such as fear of snakes, to our gut-level sense of the true or false in judging people, assessing risks, and interpreting unusual events. He even writes, "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, wrong" (p. 1).
Do all of these processes share essential characteristics that make it valid to subsume them under a single concept? Unfortunately, intuition is a tortured term in the history of philosophy. For Aristotle, intuition (a common Latin and English translation of nous) was the ability to see the truth of propositions (for example, the postulates of Euclidean geometry) that were the starting points of the sciences, propositions knowable by direct examination. Without intuition, Aristotle thought, syllogistic reasoning would lack a starting point. Medieval philosophers, Locke, Kant, Schopenhauer, Bergson, and Russell-to name but a few-have given other accounts, but the characteristics universally attributed to intuition are "directness" (it is not a product of deduction) and "immediacy" (it is effortless and unpremeditated). Intuition works automatically and out of sight. It is our "automaticity of being," writes Myers, our "capacity for flying through life on autopilot."
You process vast amounts of information off screen. You effortlessly delegate most of your thinking and decision making to the masses of cognitive workers busily at work in your mind's basement. Only the really important mental tasks reach the executive desk, where your mind works.
The big idea of contemporary psychological science [is] that most of our everyday thinking, feeling, and acting operate outside conscious awareness (p. 15).
Just how automatic and unconscious are such processes?
Intuitive learning. We are born preferring to hear human voices more than other sounds and to look at face-like shapes more than others. Newborns prefer to look at objects eight to twelve inches away, approximately the distance between a nursing infant's eyes and its mother's. Babies also have an intuitive grasp of physical regularities. Infants stare longer at a ball stopping in midair and other scenes that are violations of simple laws of physics.
Left brain/right brain. The right hemisphere of our brain seems superior to the left in visual processing (recognizing faces, perceiving differences, and sensing emotion) but, lacking language, the right brain leaves the explicit, conscious expression of its thinking to the left hemisphere, where our language centers are. The problem is that the left brain is not a reliable reporter of right-brain processes. Myers writes that "the left brain acts as the brain's press agent, doing mental gymnastics to rationalize unexplained actions. If the right brain commands an action, the left brain will intuitively justify it" (p. 20).
Implicit memory. Memory is not a single, unified system, but two systems that can operate quite independently. One, called declarative memory, handles explicit, verbal memories ofwhat. The other, called procedural memory, handles memories of how. Even when conscious recall is destroyed by injury or disease, people can learn how to do something. They play golf on a new course and entirely forget the experience; but the more often they play the course, the more their game improves. Our first two-to-three years of life are occupied with acquiring skills, value judgments, and preferences that remain with us lifelong; but we have no explicit memory for this period. We have infantile amnesia because we had no language to create declarative memories and our hippocampus, crucial for laying down explicit memories, had not matured.
Selective attention. Your conscious attention cannot be divided. You can walk and chew gum because both processes have become automatic but, says Myers, "try (assuming you are right-handed) moving your right foot in a smooth counterclockwise circle while writing the number 3 repeatedly with your right hand. You can easily do either-but not at the same time" (p. 24). What we can do, however, is process--and be influenced by--unattended information. Experiments have shown that we process information outside of our conscious awareness:
The chances are less than 1 in 7 that you could name a simple image (such as a hammer) after its presentation for 47 milliseconds. But what if you witness the image again in the same position as much as 15 minutes later...? The chances of your naming the hammer would now be better than 1 in 3. It is as if the second presentation, combined with the first presentation, sufficiently awakens the brain for some awareness (p. 27).
This is priming, or subliminal influence, and its variety and subtlety, as Myers demonstrates, is impressive. "We have sampled but a few of the hundreds of 1990s experiments exploring the relative contributions of two ways of knowing—automatic (unconscious) and controlled (conscious)" (p. 29).
But when you take a stab at answering the following question are you using intuition? "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?" (p. 8)
Myers offers this as an example of how far off our "gut sense" of things may be. (The answer is 23 people.) Do we really reach our answer by intuition, though? Or do we go through a crude process of estimation, which fails because our understanding of probability theory is weak? I'm not sure, but it seems clear that in defining intuition Myers wants to err on the side of inclusiveness. If we are unable to say how we reached a conclusion, Myers will call the process intuitive.
The Unconscious--Bearing Gifts
How much are we guided by our sources of intuition-cognitive, attitudinal, and emotional? How often do they trump our reason? Intuition makes the case that, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, nonconscious processes pervade mental and social life. Myers quotes one provocative formulation by John Bargh that the purpose of consciousness is "to connect a parallel mind to a serial world" (p. 29, original italics). While our conscious focus must be on one thing at a time, we subconsciously or unconsciously perform processes simultaneously, in parallel. As I type this sentence, I am aware of each successive idea, but not the mental processes by which the right words and syntax pop into my mind, my fingers move over the keyboard, my visual system translates light waves into my awareness of a three-dimensional reality, my lungs take breaths at appropriate intervals, my body balances a laptop on my knees with my fingers poised above the keyboard, and my mind remains vigilant for loud or unusual noises and occasionally makes me aware of what people are saying around me.
Whether the results are true or false, unconscious processes are consistently intelligent because they are generalizations from the regularities of our personal history. "As Venus Williams smacks the ball, conscious attention and unconscious perception and coordination integrate seamlessly. The result is near-perfect intuitive physics" (p. 29). Even if my experience is too limited (not all people who refuse to meet my gaze are lying), it is actual experience. Myers's extraordinarily important theme is that because we are endowed with conscious control over thinking, we can identify the conclusions served up by our amazingly powerful intuition and subject them to critical scrutiny. We can reap the benefits and avoid the penalties.
Just what are the gifts that intuition comes bearing?
When the image of an object or face is flashed on a screen for just 200 milliseconds we can evaluate it, making a judgment of good or bad within a quarter of a second of seeing it. This is especially true of social intuitions-for example, gaining an initial sense of personality traits such as expressiveness.
From age 1 to 18, we learn some 5,000 words a year, or 13 each day, without trying (except for about 200 vocabulary words a year laboriously inculcated in school). From about age two, we use these words in grammatically appropriate sentences, usually without being able to state the rules of syntax.
Our minds learn patterns of which we are unaware and, according to some experiments, never succeed in making conscious. A chess master has roughly 50,000 chess-board layouts in mind and so can play by intuition at five to ten seconds a move without much loss of competence. When chess pieces are placed in truly random fashion, however, chess masters are worse than the average person at remembering the layout.
As a fastball leaves Randy Johnson's hand, writes Myers, Mark McGwire "detects the ball's speed, spin, and direction, and, within 0.15 seconds, he calculates where and when it's going to cross by him" (p. 149). He positions his hips, shoulders, and arms and begins to direct his swing to intercept the ball at the right moment and with the desired force-all less than half a second after the ball exits the pitcher's hand.
What about two domains where intuition seems particularly potent: creativity and our response to art? Myers gives creativity its due, with examples of insights that led to discoveries in science and compositions of genius in music and painting. He outlines the steps that appear to be common to instances of creative insight. Nowhere, however, does he touch upon any equivalent of Ayn Rand's concept of sense of life, the summing up by our subconscious that determines our response to art and also our romantic choices.
Tell Me Another One
Much of the credibility and appeal of Intuition stem from Myers's own wonder at the feats of the human brain: "Thanks to the three pounds of wet neural tissue folded and jammed into our skulls, we are the world's greatest wonder."
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 (p. 67).
Thus, when he turns to the perils of intuition, where the news is bad-sometimes unbelievably bad-we are ready to listen. Our intuitive processes are not only ubiquitous; they are "prone to predictable errors and misjudgments" (p. 67). Why? Perhaps because in the evolutionary past of our species, our brains fashioned efficient shortcuts-shortcuts that in a far more complex world don't always measure up.
Consider memory. In experiments, subjects who viewed more than 2,500 slides of faces and places for only 10 seconds each were later able to spot 90 percent of them when they were paired with previously unseen slides. This same virtually limitless memory makes rather predictable mistakes in other contexts. Thanks to an impressive archive of experiments in cognitive psychology, the most common errors have been categorized and named. Experiments have shown that we readily incorporate misinformation into our memories. Suggestions can cause witnesses to recall stop signs that were not there, facial features that were not there, and events that never happened. But false memories feel real, much as perceptual illusions feel real, leading to outrages such as false memories implanted in the minds of children whose testimony then sends innocent people to prison. Most people constantly revise their life histories, misrecalling their earlier opinions and attitudes and insisting that they always felt as they do now. Positive events become more positive; unpleasant or boring aspects of those events simply never happened.
Myers takes us through chapters on intuitions about our past and future, our competence and virtue, our judgments of others, sports intuition, investment intuition, clinical intuition, interviewer's intuition, risk intuition, and gambler's intuition. In every domain, the operation and outcome of human intuition have been tested, seldom with reassuring results.
In three surveys, nine in ten college professors rated themselves as superior to their average colleague. And most drivers-even most drivers who have been hospitalized after accidents-believe themselves safer and more skilled than the average driver (p. 95)
In judging others, we tend to make the "fundamental attribution" error: underestimating the situation and overestimating inner dispositions when explaining others' behavior. In explaining our own, we do the reverse.
"In 1998 a Canadian Solicitor General research team combined data from 64 samples of more than 25,000 mentally disordered criminal offenders. What best predicted risk of future offending?" (p. 173). A simple record of the amount of past criminal activity. Among the least accurate predictors of future criminality was a clinician's judgment. Professional intuition seems to be inferior to statistical prediction in physicians, psychiatrists, judges, college admissions officers, and virtually everyone else who predicts an individual's behavior from an interview.
Most marriage applicants know that about half of marriages end in divorce but in surveys at the time they apply for a marriage license they assess their chance of divorce as zero percent.
Our intuitions of risk are frequently and wildly off the mark. "'Every time I get off a plane, I view it as a failed suicide attempt,' says movie director Barry Sonnenfeld.." And yet: "In one 1990s period, major U.S. airlines carried more than 1 billion passengers on 16 million consecutive flights without a single death" (p. 200).
The payoff from these exposures of intuition's pitfalls is that Myers is able to identify and analyze the most common types of errors, which pop up repeatedly. I have space for just a few of the dozens of types that Myers warns us against:
Illusory correlation, of course, results from our mind's eagerness to detect patterns. It is the basis of many superstitions and fuels racial stereotypes; but it also underlies many perdurable common beliefs: that sugar makes children hyperactive, that cell phones cause brain cancer, that getting wet and cold causes colds, and that weather changes stir up arthritis pains. None of these ideas has survived scientific testing.
Misinterpreting the streaks in random sequences is a pervasive, nigh-irresistible pitfall of our unconscious. Our minds abhor the random because it deprives us of prediction, our sense of control over the future. Truly random sequences trick us because they are much streakier than most people expect. If you flip a coin six times, the sequence HHHHHH is just as likely (or unlikely) as any other. What is more, extremely unlikely patterns occur inevitably if we generate enough sequences. Myers is brilliant and amusing in showing us why there are no "hot hands" in basketball and no "hot bats" in baseball. I wish I had space here to answer all the objections that I hear from sports fans, but I must leave that to Myers. Just remember: "An event that happens to but one in a billion people in a day will happen 2,000 times a year to someone" (p. 134).
The interview illusion should alter the way business is conducted every day all over the world-but it probably won't. We are superb at spotting certain traits in other people, such as expressiveness, and can do so in microseconds. What we cannot do, in almost any setting, is rely on our professional, seasoned intuition to interview someone and then predict that person's performance. Citing dozens of studies, Myers concludes: "Informal interviews [rigidly structured interviews are better] that yield a subjective overall evaluation are better than handwriting analysis (which is worthless). But informal interviews are less informative than aptitude tests, work samples, job knowledge tests, and peer ratings of past performance" (p. 189). Some of the reasons: the fundamental attribution error (mentioned above) and lack of feedback on the candidates we didn't select.
No review of Intuition would be complete without mention of a final issue: psychic intuition and its acclaimed powers. "In a May 2001 Gallup survey," Myers recounts, "50 percent of Americans declared their belief in extrasensory perception. Only 27 percent said they don't believe; the rest were unsure" (p. 227). Here, in a sense, is the ancient dream of intuition: immediate, direct, infallible-and causeless. Also, however, nonexistent. Myers reviews the claims of telepathy, clairvoyance or precognition, and all the rest of it in some detail. Why do people believe? Perhaps, in part, because of all the human tendencies, such as illusory correlations, that constitute the perils of ordinary intuition. Myers's conclusion is unambiguous: "After thousands of experiments, no reproducible ESP phenomenon has ever been discovered, nor has any researcher produced any individual who can convincingly demonstrate psychic ability" (p. 223).
Right after this firm verdict rooted in examination of the evidence, Myers writes the only unimpressive section of his book. At the urging of a friend, he tells us, he went in search of a way to leave the door open to "a prompting of the Spirit." He then devotes several pages (pp. 242-49) to a kind of game of give-it-and-take-it-away. "Our rational, scientific understanding of nature is incomplete," he writes, "...we have much yet to learn." Is there a divine mind behind the beauty of the universe? "Science does not pretend to answer such questions." We are given a discussion of "epistemological modesty" and a rundown on "spiritual intelligence." And then, there is wonderment at intuition itself, which "blows where it chooses, unseen." There is delight at what pops into awareness, joy at "what something or someone pours onto my mental screen." Myers ends by comparing his sense of wonder at his own experience with the Psalmist's wonder at God's mysteries.
I begin to feel sorry for Myers. My intuition, if you'll pardon the expression, whispers to me that he doesn't want to be here, doing this. He has taken today's feverish enthusiasm for so-called "intuitives"-with institutes, Web sites, dozens of books and magazines, and even Caribbean cruises devoted to presenting their supposed wisdom-and brilliantly redirected its energy toward genuine, surprising, and important human capabilities. He has scrupulously delineated the limits of those capabilities, so we can more confidently tread the line between insight and error. He has defended his territory against psychic claim jumpers. He deserves an honest, secular day of rest.
Walter Donway, a trustee of The Objectivist Center, is editor of Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, a quarterly published by the Dana Press.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.