Our Dangerous Belief in Intuition
Christopher Chabris is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Union College. In 2004 he was the co-recipient of an Ig Nobel Prize for his now-landmark experiment "Gorillas in Our Midst," which demonstrated that when subjects focused their attention on one thing, they often failed to notice something as conspicuous as a woman in a gorilla suit. His new book "The Invisible Gorilla," based largely on that experiment and reactions to it, explores how the human mind is more fallible than we tend to believe. Chabris received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1999.
Christopher Chabris: There’s been a lot of talk over the \r\npast few years and some popular books about the power of intuition and \r\nhow if we trusted our intuitions or went with our guts more often, we \r\nwould actually wind up making better decisions and the world would even\r\n be a better place. Some researchers have talked about how our \r\nintuitions and the intuitive judgments we can make, the snap judgments, \r\nare actually accurate a lot of the time. And a lot of that is true, but\r\n what we noticed when thinking about our gorilla experiment and doing \r\nresearch for this book is that there’s a whole category of intuitions \r\nthat are actually systematically wrong and in very dangerous ways. And \r\nthose are the intuitions we have about how our own minds work.
So\r\n our gorilla experiment shows that we intuitively think that we pay \r\nattention to and notice much more than we actually do, and that can have\r\n tragic consequences. If you get into a car accident or... one of the \r\nexamples in our book is a nuclear submarine that surfaced right into a \r\nJapanese fishing boat because, in part, the captain of the submarine \r\nlooked up in the periscope, didn’t see any boats around and surfaced \r\nright into one that he didn’t see. That was actually probably right in \r\nfront of him.
\r\nSo there’s a case where intuitively, we think something and it can \r\nreally get us into big trouble. We realize as we were thinking about \r\nthe book and putting together the ideas that this category of intuitions\r\n is very broad, it’s not just about visual attention. It’s also about \r\nmemory. We think we remember things much more accurately than we really\r\n do. It’s about confidence. We think that people who are confident are\r\n also more skilled and accurate and knowledgeable. It’s about our own \r\nknowledge. We think that we know and understand more about the world \r\nthan we really do. And so on. There’s sort of like a whole sort of set\r\n of these intuitions which can really lead us astray if we’re not aware \r\nof them. And that’s what we decided to write the book about.
Question: Is your research in dialogue with recent books \r\nthat tout the value of intuition?
\r\nChristopher Chabris: We are, in a way, taking on the impression that\r\n a lot of people have from books like, "Blink," by Malcolm Gladwell, and\r\n others in that category, which is sort of an uncritical belief in the \r\npower of intuition and snap judgments and so on, and the idea that you \r\nshould rely on them whenever possible. We sort of are, in a sense \r\ntaking on the cult of intuition or the myth of intuition as we call it \r\nin the book.
I should also say that we’re very pleased that \r\nMalcolm Gladwell actually read our original Scientific Journal article \r\nabout the Invisible Gorilla study and talked about it in one of his New \r\nYorker articles which helped it get more publicity and ultimately we \r\nwent into it becoming more widely known and as famous as it is.
Recorded on May 13, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
There’s a whole category of intuitions that are systematically wrong in very dangerous ways—those we have about how our own minds work.
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