“I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me,” explained President Trump in stating why he believed Federal Reserve interest rate hikes were a mistake. “My gut has always been right,” he declared again in saying why he needn’t prepare for the recent trade negotiation with China’s president.
In trusting his gut intuition, Trump has much company. “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,” offered Prince Charles. “I’m a gut player. I rely on my instincts,” said President George W. Bush, explaining his decision to launch the Iraq War.
Although there is, as I noted in another of these TalkPsych essays, a gut-brain connection, are we right to trust our gut? Does the gut know best about interest rates, trade policy, and climate change? Or, mindful of smart people often doing dumb things, do we instead need more humility, more checking of gut hunches against hard reality, more critical thinking?
Drawing from today’s psychological science, one could write a book on both the powers and perils of intuition. (Indeed, I have—see here.) Here, shortened to an elevator speech, is the gist.
Intuition’s powers. Cognitive science reveals an unconscious mind—another mind backstage—that Freud never told us about. Much thinking occurs not “on screen” but off screen, out of sight, where reason does not know. Countless studies—of priming, implicit memory, empathic accuracy, thin slice social judgments, creativity, and right hemisphere processing—illustrate our nonrational, intuitive powers. We know more than we know we know. Thanks to our “overlearning” of automatic behaviors, those of us who learned to ride bikes as children can intuitively pedal away on one decades later. And a skilled violinist knows, without thinking, just where to place the bow, at what angle, with what pressure. “In apprehension, how like a god!,” exclaimed Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Intuition’s perils. Other studies—of perceptual illusions, self-serving bias, illusory optimism, illusory correlation, confirmation bias, belief perseverance, the fundamental attribution error, misplaced fears, and the overconfidence phenomenon—confirm what literature and religion have long presumed: the powers and perils of pride. Moreover, these phenomena feed mistaken gut intuitions that produce deficient decisions by clinicians, interviewers, coaches, investors, gamblers, and would-be psychics. “Headpiece filled with straw,” opined T. S. Eliot.
Intuition’s failures often are akin to perceptual illusions—rooted in mechanisms that usually serve us well but sometimes lead us astray. Like doctors focused on detecting and treating disease, psychological scientists are skilled at detecting and calling attention to our mind’s predictable errors. They concur with the novelist Madeline L’Engle’s observation: “The naked intellect is an extraordinarily inaccurate instrument.”
The bottom line: our gut intuitions are terrific at some things, such as instantly reading emotions in others’ faces, but fail at others, such as guessing stocks, assessing risks, and predicting climate change. And so psychologists teach about intuition’s perils as well as its powers. We encourage critical thinking. We urge people, before trusting others’ gut intuitions, to ask: “What do you mean?” “How do you know?”
As physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”