What is Intuitive Thought?
I have devoted numerous posts to a general category of cognitive errors and biases that are broadly lumped into errors associated with the intuitive mind. The lay notions of intuition are often referred to as gut instincts and they are generally considered emotional and irrational responses. It is in this context that intuition is vilified. Such impulsive reactions are countered with teachings typified by adages such as: “Look before you leap;” “Don’t judge a book by its cover;” “Haste makes waste;” and “The hurrier you go the behinder you get.” Although this narrow understanding of intuition is in part correct, it largely misses the mark regarding this very complicated and sophisticated neuro-system. Intuition is largely misunderstood, and has frankly not been well understood to begin with. Herein I hope to offer a cursory explanation of intuition and broadly differentiate it from rational thought. The vast majority of the following content is drawn from Malcolm Gladwell’s intriguing 2005 book called ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.’ Gladwell draws together a vast array of research from cognitive and social psychology and a number of other sciences in an attempt to elucidate this ambiguous concept.
Rational thought serves as a good starting place because, in fact, it offers a good point of comparison helping to bring intuition into slightly better focus. Reason is the hallmark of rational thought. It involves an active application of the cerebral cortex, whereby personal history, knowledge, and active cognitions are employed in a conscious manner to solve problems. The keywords here are active and conscious. When we engage in reasoning we are generally aware of the cognitive effort directed toward this process. Another aspect of relevance to this process is the passage of time. Reason-based thought is not generally instantaneous. Although solutions may seem to pop into awareness out of the blue, generally some measure of time passes as we strive for enlightenment. Think of an occasion where you had word finding difficulties. You probably actively thought about the word, the context of the word, and so on. If you failed to recall the word you may have cognitively moved on to something else, only to have the word come to you. The former was rational thought; the latter, the result of intuitive thought.
Intuition is different from rational thought with regard to those key variables. First, this instantaneous process is seemingly unconscious. Second, it is automatic (or at least seemingly so) consuming no apparent effort or time. The popular and scientific literature is replete with descriptive names for this seemingly mystical capacity. Gladwell uses a full complement of these terms and he sprinkles them throughout his text. Terms that emanate from the sciences include the adaptive unconscious, unconscious reasoning, rapid cognition, and thin slicing. Other descriptive terms include snap judgments, fast and frugal thinking, and eloquently the “mind behind the locked door.” Regardless of what we call it, intuition is constantly at work, drawing instantaneous conclusions outside of our awareness.
Because of the nature of this process, Gladwell notes that people are often ignorant of the secret decisions that affect their behavior, yet they do not feel ignorant. We often behave in manners driven by the adaptive unconscious and later try to justify those behaviors invoking the rational brain to do so. This fact is what calls into the question the reality of free will. Intriguing isn’t it! It is as though there is a covert super-powerful, super-fast computer running in tandem with our overt reasoning computer: yet outside our awareness this covert computer remains ever vigilant, soaking in the world through our senses, and actively directing our behavior.
Although the adaptive unconscious lies outside our direct control, life experiences, practice, and our intellectual pursuits contribute to the data set that is used when snap judgments are made. The more informed, erudite, and experienced one is, the more accurate one’s rapid cognitions become. Just think about driving. When learning to drive there are an overwhelming number of things to think about – so many in fact, that mistakes made are likely due to “analysis paralysis.” Too much to compute! Through practice and repetition, all those things we previously had to actively think about become more automatic. We don’t think about the countless micro adjustments we make on the steering wheel as we drive down the highway. Novice drivers must think about these adjustments, along with attending to their speed (generally with gross applications of the accelerator and brakes), and myriad other factors that seasoned drivers do not overtly contemplate. The novice’s driving is chunky – experienced drivers, with the benefit of many miles in the drivers seat, are generally more smooth and more refined in their driving.
Experts in their given fields become more intuitive or automatic with regard to their area of expertise over time as a result of exposure, learning, and practice. Their thoughts become seemingly automatic, their judgments and reactions more spontaneous – all of this in many situations without the expert even having to actively think. In these cases (where there is sufficient expertise) snap judgments can be even more accurate than the arduous process of working through problems rationally. On the other hand, this intuitive process can lead to problems because it is remarkably susceptible to prejudices and errors. This is particularly true, as you might surmise, in areas where the individual lacks experience or knowledge.
Under certain circumstances the adaptive unconscious serves our purposes very well. In addition to those situations where one’s expertise applies, we tend to effectively use snap judgments in social situations, in complicated situations, or in life or death situations that necessitate quick decisions. This is where evolution has played a role in shaping this capacity. It has had the effect of contributing to the survival of our species. He who can make effective snap judgments in life or death situations is more likely to pass on this very capacity. And tens of thousands of years of such natural selection has refined this capacity.
The catch is that there are erroneous thought processes that are artifacts, residuals or the direct consequence of the adaptive unconscious. Issues such as essentialism, pareidolia, and superstition fall into this category, as they have been ushered along with the survival advantage that the adaptive unconscious has conferred. Cognitive errors and biases hamper the effectiveness of the adaptive unconscious because of its inclination toward implicit associations and other accidental error imposing tendencies. Implicit associations are automatic and non deliberate pairings we make between concepts, people, things, etc., (e.g., African Americans are athletic, blonds are scatterbrained, gay men are effeminate) as they are folded into memory. This is an intriguing concept, one deserving its own post, but you have to take the Implicit Associations Test, particularly the race test, to get a true sense of this powerful bias. Confirmation bias, self serving bias, as well as the numerous other cognitive biases are likewise linked to this influential super-computer. However, just because we cannot directly and purposefully access this incredible system, does not mean we have to bow entirely to its influence. In fact, we can proactively prime this system through active learning. And we can be aware of this powerful system and the advantages and disadvantages it confers. We can learn of the errors it inclines us toward and monitor ourselves when it comes to our biases and prejudices. We can impose certain rules of thought when it comes to important issues. I believe that we all should take these very important steps both to make our intuitive brain more accurate and to buffer its influences in those situations where it is likely to lead us astray.
Gladwell, M. (2005). ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.’ New York: Little, Brown and Company.