I have always said that there is a fine line between intelligence and fear.  Some fear is adaptive and entirely reasonable: particularly when the catalyst truly involves danger. There are some anxieties however, that take hold and profoundly affect behavior in unreasonable ways.


One personal example comes to mind to illustrate this. Last winter I was backpacking on a trail that traversed some rock city formations with deep, but relatively narrow, crevasses. Many of the cracks were unintimidating and easily traversed. There was one however, that stopped me in my tracks. The gap was 36-40 inches across a sheer 25 foot drop. Under more typical circumstances, this gap would have not phased me. Yet, in this situation, I was completely frozen.

Rock City Crevasse

To be clear there was some risk associated with this crossing. But, in my mind, the risk took on unreasonable proportions.


Frankly, I was both embarrassed and befuddled by this situation. Were it a stream of equal width, I would have easily hopped over it.


I stood there at battle with myself for what seemed like an eternity. In reality, it was probably only a minute or two.  My body was hostage to a cognitive tug-of-war between my rational brain urging me to leap. “Come-on” I uttered to myself “It’s only three feet across!” “You can do this!”


Another force in my brain countered with incapacitating doubt.  Kevin, my backpacking companion, patiently waited on the other side of the crevasse after easily leaping across. I saw him do it with no difficulty.  I had clear evidence that the crossing was easily within my capabilities; but, the cost of a slip and a fall, far overshadowed my confidence. The frustration I felt over this coup of sorts, was immense. Finally, I was able to muster up enough confidence to take the leap. It was, in fact, quite easy.  We hiked on and no further mention of this humbling pause was made.


Many fears are like this. Whether it is a fear of mice, or bees, spiders, or snakes. These stimuli impose, in most circumstances, no grave threat, but the flight response they trigger in the phobic is immense. Even when a person knows that there is no reason for fear, it persists.


This response is akin to the reluctance that most people have about eating chocolate fudge in the shape of dog feces, or eating soup from a clean unused bedpan, or drinking juice from a glass in which a sterile cockroach has been dipped. Psychologist Paul Rozin, in his famous studies on disgust, discovered that when presented with these circumstances, most people choose not to eat the fudge or the soup, or drink from the glass – even knowing there is no real danger in doing so.  It is the irrational essence of contagion that drives these inhibitions.


These situations are all very different than rock climbing without ropes, where there is clear and present danger. When we are compelled to flee a truly benign stimulus, we are likely driven by an internal cognitive force that screams “RISK!” even when there is no true danger.  Intriguing isn’t it, that this innate force is so powerful that even our capacity to use reason and evidence pales in comparison.


Philosopher Tamar Gendler has coined the word “alief” to describe this cognitive phenomenon.  She fashioned the word around the word “belief,” which is a conscious manifestation of how we suppose things to be.  An alief is a deep and powerful feeling of sorts that can and does play an important role in decision-making, but it is not based in reason or evidence.  Beliefs can be more susceptible to such rational forces.  But aliefs defy reason and exert powerful influence despite one’s attempts to rationally dispel them.  This voice is intuitive and its origins are outside your awareness.  They typically appear in an attempt to facilitate self-preservation.


You may believe that the feces shaped fudge is “JUST FUDGE!” but it is your alief that the fudge is excrement (as a result of it’s characteristic size, shape, and color) that makes it very hard to eat.  I believed that hopping over the crevasse was easily within my capabilities, but it was my “alief” that – leaping over the gap is DANGEROUS – that kept me frozen in my tracks.


You see, you can simultaneously hold opposing beliefs and aliefs and it was, in fact, these opposing forces that waged war as I stood at the edge of the precipice.  You might believe that a bee is generally harmless and unlikely to sting you unless you threaten it.  But, it is your alief, that the bee will sting and hurt you that triggers the autonomic arousal that compels you to flee.  It is this deeply primal alief that often wins, no matter how rational you attempt to be.


In my situation, my belief in my leaping ability ultimately prevailed.  Perhaps this was due to my machismo or humiliation, but ultimately I fought down and defeated the alief.  It was a hard fought battle that left me feeling like a chicken despite my “victory.”


In retrospect, getting an understanding of this internal process has helped me come to grips with my hesitation.  And as such, I stand in awe of the internal brain systems that play out in such circumstances.


Perhaps in the future, when in a similar situation, I will be better prepared to deal with self doubt as it springs forth from my lizard brain so that I will more effectively cope with it before it builds incapacitating momentum.  After all – it’s just an alief!


Halloween seems like an appropriate time to discuss superstition.  What with ghosts and goblins and black cats and witches and all.  But would not Easter or Christmas, or any other evening that a five year old loses a tooth be an equally appropriate time?  In actuality, we massage magical thinking in our children with notions of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy.  And recall if you will, some of your favorite children’s books and the supernatural forces employed to delight your youthful whimsies.  Magic is, along with the thinking employed to delight in it, seemingly a rite of childhood, and in some ways the essence of what it is to be a child.


Much as magical thinking has its roots in childhood fantasies, superstition too has its roots in our species’ youth.  In that nascent time we lacked the capacity to understand the forces and whims of the natural world around us.  Our ancestors struggled to survive, and living another day in part depended on their ability to make sense of the forces that aided or impinged upon them.  We must not forget that our forefathers lived much like the non-domesticated animals around us today.  Survival was a day to day reality dependent upon the availability of life sustaining resources like food, water and shelter, and was often threatened by predation or the forces of nature.  Death was a real possibility and survival a real struggle.  The stakes were high and the hazards were plentiful.  As it turns out, these are the very conditions under which superstition is likely to thrive.


So what is superstition?  Bruce Hood, author of The Science of Superstition, notes that superstition is a belief “that there are patterns, forces, energies, and entities operating in the world that are denied by science…”  He adds that “the inclination or sense that they may be real is our supersense.” It involves an inclination to attempt to “control outcomes through supernatural influence.”  It is the belief that if you knock on wood or cross your fingers you can influence outcomes in your favor.  It is the belief that faithfully carrying out rituals as part of a wedding ceremony (e.g., wearing something blue, something new, something borrowed) or before going to bat or before giving a big speech will improve outcomes.  It is also the belief that negative outcomes can come as a result of stepping on a crack, breaking a mirror, or spilling salt.  Hood argues that supersense goes beyond these obvious notions and surfaces in more subtle ways associated with touching an object or entering a place that we feel has a connection with somebody bad or evil.  For example, how would you feel if you were told that you had to wear Jeffery Dalmer’s T-shirt or that you were living in a house where ritualistic torture and multiple murders took place?  Most of us would recoil at the thought of this.  Most of us also believe (erroneously) that we can sense when someone is looking at us, even when we cannot see them doing so.  These beliefs and much of the value we place on sentimental objects stems from this style of thinking.


I explored the deep evolutionary roots of superstitious thinking in a previous post, The Illusion of Cause: Vaccines and Autism.   The principle underpinnings are the same.  In that post I noted the following:


Michael Shermer (2000), in his book, How We Believe, eloquently describes our brains as a Belief Engine. Underlying this apt metaphor is the notion that “Humans evolved to be skilled pattern seeking creatures. Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants.” (Shermer, p. 38). Chabris and Simons (2009) note that this refined ability “serves us well, enabling us to draw conclusions in seconds (or milliseconds) that would take minutes or hours if we had to rely on laborious logical calculations.” (p. 154). However, it is important to understand that we are all prone to drawing erroneous connections between stimuli in the environment and notable outcomes. Shermer further contends that “The problem in seeking and finding patterns is knowing which ones are meaningful and which ones are not.

From an evolutionary perspective, we have thrived in part, as a result of our tendency to infer cause or agency regardless of the reality of threat. For example, those who assumed that rustling in the bushes was a tiger (when it was just wind) were more likely to take precautions and thus less likely, in general, to succumb to predation. Those who were inclined to ignore such stimuli were more likely to later get eaten when in fact the rustling was a hungry predator. Clearly from a survival perspective, it is best to infer agency and run away rather than become lunch meat. The problem that Shermer refers to regarding this system is that we are subsequently inclined toward mystical and superstitious beliefs: giving agency to unworthy stimuli or drawing causal connections that do not exist. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist, in his blog post entitled Hyperactive Agency Detection notes that humans vary in the degree to which they assign agency. Some of us have Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices (HADD) and as such, are more prone to superstitious thinking, conspiratorial thinking, and more mystical thinking. It is important to understand as Shermer (2000) makes clear:

“The Belief Engine is real. It is normal. It is in all of us. Stuart Vyse [a research psychologist] shows for example, that superstition is not a form of psychopathology or abnormal behavior; it is not limited to traditional cultures; it is not restricted to race, religion, or nationality; nor is it only a product of people of low intelligence or lacking education. …all humans possess it because it is part of our nature, built into our neuronal mainframe.” (p. 47).


Bruce Hood takes this notion further and adds that the cultural factors discussed at the opening of this piece and other intuitive inclinations such as dualism (a belief in the separation of mind and body), essentialism (the notion that all discernible objects harbor an underlying reality that although intangible, gives each and every object it’s true identity), vitalism (the insistence that there is some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things), holism (that everything is connected by forces), and anism (the belief that the inanimate world is alive) shape adult superstition.  These latter belief mechanisms are developmental and naturally occurring in children: they are the tendencies that make magic and fantasy so compelling for children.  It is when they lurk in our intuition or are sustained in our rational thought that we as adults fall victim to this type of illusion.


It is interesting to note that much like our ancestors, we are more prone to this type of thinking when faced with high stakes, a low probability of success, and incomprehensible controlling circumstances.  Think about it.  In baseball, batters often have complex superstitious rituals associated with batting.  The best hitters experience success only one in three times at bat.  And the speed at which they have to decide to swing or not and where to position the swing defies the rational decision making capacity of humans.  On the other hand, these very same athletes have no rituals when it comes to fielding a ball (which is a high probability event for the proficient).


Superstition is a natural inclination with deep evolutionary and psychological roots embedded deeply in our natural child development.  These tendencies are nurtured and socialized as a part of child rearing and spill over into adult rituals in predictable circumstances (particularly when there is a low degree personal control).   When one deconstructs this form of thinking it makes complete and total sense.  This is not to suggest that reliance on superstitions is sensible.  Often, however, the costs are low and the rituals therein can be fun.  There are some potential costs associated with such thinking.  Some of the dangers are materialized in notions such as vaccines cause autism and homeopathy will cure what ails you in lieu of scientific medicine.  Resignation of personal power in deference to supernatural forces is a depressive response pattern.  Reliance on supernatural forces is essentially reliance on chance and in some cases its applications actually stack the deck against you.  So be careful when employing such tactics.  But, if you’re in the neighborhood, NEVER EVER walk under my ladder.  I’ve been known to drop my hammer.




Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. Random House: New York.


Dawkins, R. (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press: New York.


Gelman, S. A. (2004). Psychological Essentialism in Children. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 404-409.


Hood, B. (2008). The Science of Superstition (Formerly Titled: Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable). HarperCollins Publishers: New York.


Novella, S. (2010). Hyperactive Agency Detection. NeuroLogica Blog. http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=1762


Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe. W.H. Freeman/Henry Holt and Company: New York.


I just spent two weeks in Europe with my fellow adventurer and wife visiting the relics of times gone by. In the Louvre we peered upon works laid down well over two thousand years ago by Greek sculptors as well as by Roman, Middle Age, Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque artists. We admired the Impressionists at Musée d’Orsay.


We then traveled to Venice, a city that blended Byzantine, International Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art and architecture in a way that is unique to this breathtaking city. It’s Eastern influences are palpable. Then on to Florence, the home of the Renaissance, which proved to be a showcase for the works of da Vinci, Botticelli, Titian, Michelangelo and many others.


When In Rome, we focused on the age of the Empire devoting our attention to the Colosseum, Palantine Hill, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and our day trip to Pompeii. We didn’t prioritize the treasures at the Vatican or the many other indoor sites. Between the Louvre, Orsay, Uffuzi, and the many works within the countless Basilicas and churches we had previously visited, we had had our fill of crowded indoor shrines. Here we largely delved into the out of doors. The Pantheon was far more striking than I had imagined. And Pompeii, wow! It has to be seen to be appreciated.


All this is relevant because although you can see it at home, it is just not the same. Go to Google Maps and search for Pompeii. You can tour the site using street view. Or get a book or watch Travel Channel or History Channel episodes on these great destinations. I guarantee it won’t be the same as seeing it in person, touching it, feeling it, or breathing it in in-vivo. No duh, right?


Well, what is it about seeing the “real thing?” Why was I moved to tears to see a statue of Galileo in Florence? Why was it exciting to walk the same basalt cobbles in the Roman Forum as historical figures such as Julius Caesar, Brutus, Marc Antony, and Augustus? Why were there throngs of people gathered around da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? All over Paris, Venice and Florence you could find “descent” replicas (prints and even posters) – yet these images gathered no lines.


The answer is essentialism. There is nothing on the streets left by these famous people that magically imbibes the stones with a quality that makes them somehow special. They don’t contain anything truly special at all. I absorbed nothing by touching them or by looking at da Vinci’s or Michelangelo’s original works. And my personal telescope is far more capable than any Galileo original. But it was very exciting to see two of the scopes that he himself had made.


I knew that there was an irrational magical quality to these experiences. I knew I was cognitively embellishing all the aforementioned relics; however, I was able to let go, and enjoy the emotional implications. I did, however, find myself less inclined to part with my few and precious Euros for sentimental mementos (made in China) to remember this trip by.

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Intuitive Thought

2 April 2010

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.



12 March 2010

Essentialism within the purview of psychology is a cognitive bias whose roots form in early childhood (Gelman, 2004). This concept pertains to the notion that all discernible objects harbor an underlying reality that although intangible, gives each and every object it’s true identity – it’s essence (Dawkins, 2009; Hood, 2008).  To put it another way:

people believe that natural category members share some hidden, unobservable, empirically discoverable deep structure or essence, whose possession is necessary and sufficient for category membership” (Jylkkäa, Railob, and Haukiojaa, 2008).

In our early childhood, as we were developing language, essentialism played a crucial role in the expansion of our vocabulary, the generalization of our knowledge, in discriminating among objects, and in our ability to construct causal explanations (Gelman, 2004).  In our struggle to understand the vast and complicated world, our brain forced us to partition things into categories so we chopped and divided what we surveyed into distinct groupings based on defining characteristics driven by our internalized understanding of the essence of those groupings.  This was initially a very simplistic process (dog, cat, cow), then more complex (mammal, reptile, insect),  and then even more sophisticated for those who progressed in the biological sciences (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). This is necessarily a dynamic process because as we mature and take in increasing complexity we need increased specificity when parsing the world up into discrete categories.


This pattern of thinking/learning transcends all cultures and is central to our language development (Hood, 2008). Given this central role, it forms the foundation of our thought processes (Hood 2008; Dawkins, 2009). The overgeneralization of this process is what gets us into difficulty. Bruce Hood, author of Supersense (2008), convincingly argues that this innate tendency forms the core of our superstitious and supernatural thinking. Richard Dawkins (2009), an evolutionary biologist, suggests that such an inclination explains why people have such great difficulty grasping and accepting the concept of evolution by means of natural selection. I suggest, that like evolution (which necessitates quintessential anti-essentialist thinking), the concepts of plate tectonics, deep geological time, and deep space time are also very hard to grasp for the same reasons. We are inclined to think that what we see are constants – that the world as we see it has been eternally so, and so shall it always remain.


In biology, essentialism sustains the notion that all animals are clear and distinct, belonging to a specific species. In fact, as Dawkins  suggests: “On the ‘population-thinking’ evolution view, every animal [living form] is linked to every other animal [living form], say rabbit to leopard, by a chain of intermediates, each so similar to the next that every link could in principle mate with its neighbors in the chain and produce fertile offspring” (2009, p. 24).  This is true for all conceivable pairings including bacteria and viruses, giant sequoias and lichen, spiders and flies, cats and dogs, birds and snakes, foxes and chickens, and even humans and turnips.


Plato demonstrated essentialist thinking in The Republic in his cave allegory, where he suggested that the world as we experience it is only a composite of mere shadows tethered to their true and perfect forms (essences) floating about somewhere in the heavens (Dawkins, 2009; Hood, 2008). Many people still believe that there is something more to the physical world than what we see. As Hood (2008) put it, “Humans like to think that special things are unique by virtue of something deep and irreplaceable.” This thinking, and other intuitive errors such as vitalism (that vital life energies cause things to be alive) and holism (that everything is connected by forces) are likely artifacts of our natural involuntary inclinations (Hood, 2008).


Essentialism is more than a heuristic and it has ramifications beyond making us less inclined to believe in evolution or more inclined toward superstition. It is what makes rape more than a physical crime. The defilement and contamination the victim feels is a psychological violation of one’s essential integrity. Genocide is perpetrated by individuals who dehumanize or define the victims as essentially different and/or contaminated. Essentialism, is what makes original works of art more valuable than exact duplicates (Hood, 2008). It also drives the belief systems that sustain homeopathy.


It is interesting that this intuitive process plays such an important and fundamental role in our development and sustains both powerfully positive and hugely negative influences on us as adults.  When you get right down to the essence of this concept, you must accept that these inclinations have their roots in the same thinking that makes a preschool child believe that a Mommy can’t be a firefighter (Gelman, 2004).




Dawkins, R. 2009. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. New York: Free Press.


Gelman, S. A. 2004. ‘Psychological Essentialism in Children’, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 404-409.


Hood, B. 2008. Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.


Jylkkäa, J., Railob, H., & Haukiojaa, J. 2008. ‘Psychological Essentialism and Semantic Externalism: Evidence for Externalism in Lay Speakers’ Language Use‘. Philosophical Psychology