Our Dangerous Belief in Intuition

There’s a whole category of intuitions that are systematically wrong in very dangerous ways—those we have about how our own minds work.
  • Transcript


Question: What are we talking about when we talk about intuition?

Christopher Chabris: There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years and some popular books about the power of intuition and how if we trusted our intuitions or went with our guts more often, we would actually wind up  making better decisions and the world would even be a better place.  Some researchers have talked about how our intuitions and the intuitive judgments we can make, the snap judgments, are actually accurate a lot of the time.  And a lot of that is true, but what we noticed when thinking about our gorilla experiment and doing research for this book is that there’s a whole category of intuitions that are actually systematically wrong and in very dangerous ways.  And those are the intuitions we have about how our own minds work. 

So our gorilla experiment shows that we intuitively think that we pay attention to and notice much more than we actually do, and that can have tragic consequences.  If you get into a car accident or... one of the examples in our book is a nuclear submarine that surfaced right into a Japanese fishing boat because, in part, the captain of the submarine looked up in the periscope, didn’t see any boats around and surfaced right into one that he didn’t see.  That was actually probably right in front of him. 

So there’s a case where intuitively, we think something and it can really get us into big trouble.  We realize as we were thinking about the book and putting together the ideas that this category of intuitions is very broad, it’s not just about visual attention.  It’s also about memory.  We think we remember things much more accurately than we really do.  It’s about confidence.  We think that people who are confident are also more skilled and accurate and knowledgeable.  It’s about our own knowledge.  We think that we know and understand more about the world than we really do.  And so on.  There’s sort of like a whole sort of set of these intuitions which can really lead us astray if we’re not aware of them.  And that’s what we decided to write the book about. 

Question: Is your research in dialogue with recent books that tout the value of intuition?

Christopher Chabris:
We are, in a way, taking on the impression that a lot of people have from books like, "Blink," by Malcolm Gladwell, and others in that category, which is sort of an uncritical belief in the power of intuition and snap judgments and so on, and the idea that you should rely on them whenever possible.  We sort of are, in a sense taking on the cult of intuition or the myth of intuition as we call it in the book.
I should also say that we’re very pleased that Malcolm Gladwell actually read our original Scientific Journal article about the Invisible Gorilla study and talked about it in one of his New Yorker articles which helped it get more publicity and ultimately we went into it becoming more widely known and as famous as it is.

Recorded on May 13, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen