AI: Intuition

Last Thursday I attended a Bay Area Skeptics talk by Dr Scott Lilienfeld, Professor of Psychology at Emory University, Atlanta.

Lilienfeld spoke about our “intuition”, and why we can’t trust it above our rational thinking.

What was a situation where you could, or couldn’t, trust your intuition?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

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  1. The time that Nigerian wanted me to send him my bank info was a total intuitive fail on my part. He seemed so sincere.

    I think intuition is like any reflex. It’s good for what you’ve practiced but doesn’t work so well for what you haven’t spent much time learning.

    I’ve been doing theater for twenty years, so I can rely on my intuition for a lot of what I do there.

    I know enough about urban legends to spot one even if I haven’t heard it before, most of the time.

    I only just started learning Spanish so I really have to be careful about whether I’m asking about someone’s age or about how the colonoscopy went.

  2. I think that what we call “intuition” is a process similar to rational thought that operates on a sub-conscious level. This, unfortunately, makes it harder to spot flaws in reasoning, as we are only generally aware of the result, not the process itself. I’ve learned to use intuitive outputs as the bases for further hypotheses instead of taking them as definitive conclusions. Especially, as davew says, with regards to relationships. Mechanical systems are so much easier to understand.

  3. I know one of my children can NOT “read” people. The other one is a fantastic “spot” reader of people. One of highly intelligent, she’s the one with the reading people issues. It’s not been a problem only having some of those abilities would have made her social life easier. However, it all seems to have worked out well.

    My other child, even when she was young, she would know if another child in her classroom was sick. The teachers would joke she would know before the kid would. Even today, if she doesnt’ like someone, you can be assured that person is well worth avoiding. Now the good part is she approves of the fiancee of her sister.

    My younger daughter doesn’t explain it as “woo” she says “you just have to LOOK at people and they will give it away.” Smart daughter goes to a school full of intelligent people that haven’t a clue when it comes to social stuff.

    I always find my intuition as a mom to be untrustworthy as it’s always in overdrive. My poor kids were dragged into the ER more times because something as mild as “mommy my neck is sore” would become “OH mY GAWD, you have meningitis!” I had to learn to tone down the mommy intuition.

  4. Like anything, it’s a tool that can be used or abused.

    I don’t rely on intuition alone in the face of rational thinking that tells me something else, but I do rely on intuition with the lack of any high-brain conclusion on my part. As has been stated above, intuition or your (gut feeling) is based on data that has entered your subconscious but hasn’t been completely processed yet. It can be tripped up if you don’t have any education or experience in a particular subject, but it can save your ass when you’re stymied by something that you ARE skilled in but can’t quite produce a provable answer for.

    I call it a gut check. If my gut and my head agree, then I’m good. If they disagree, then I look a little more at the problem before making my choice (assuming I have to decide something) I don’t particularly like doing anything where my head and gut disagree on.

  5. Yeah, I tend to think of “intuition” as “sub-conscious reasoning”, too. Sometimes it’s better-than-average observation, coupled with the ability to extrapolate from prior experience/acquired data. Sometimes it’s a superior ability put together body language, etc. – vide the “psychics” who pick up on cues in their audiences and amaze their dupes with their ESP. [Think a spectrum – with Asbergers on one end and John Edward on the other.] Sometimes it’s just how one’s brain works. I always got criticised for ‘not showing [my] work’ on maths exams – but I had shown my work! My brain just leapt from A to M to Q to Z without consciously registering the steps in between. So I was told I had “an intuitive grasp” of mathematics. Hah!

  6. @swordsbane: Well said. That describes my take on it as well.

    My mother was once amazed because this friend of hers was over and his presence made me feel anxious and physically ill, even though he was perfectly nice. Turned out he was going through some really bad stuff and I suppose I picked up on his body language or whatever.

    I think it’s a neat parlor trick your brain pulls, by delivering information through “back channels.” As others have said, I don’t rely on it to the exclusion of other things, but I’ve learned to at least listen when my intuition speaks up about something.

  7. When my intuition talks to me, I listen.

    As already mentioned, I think we perceive things we don’t pay attention to, but this data is processed to reach a conclusion and rushed into our decision-making phase before we know how.

    I used to exercise people “reading” – the area in which I use most intuition – and developed some good skill. Like someone said: what you “are” speaks so loudly, that I can’t hear what you say. Surely, when someone “punches me in the stomach”, there *is* big trouble coming. I don’t know why.

    In an unrelated note, today I made a stop at a corner and then went ahead. A parked car hid a coming vehicle and I clearly – physically – felt my head hit and turn by the impact, which didn’t happen (in fact, wasn’t that very close). So drive safe everybody. Better waste a few extra seconds at the stop. My intuition says so. :)

  8. I’m a private investigator. One thing I learned early on is to never rely on intuition. You may actually do better by going directly opposite to what your intuition says.

    People who think they can read people are almost always wrong.

  9. I Googled around trying to find this quote from one mathematician about another to the effect that whenever the first saw a statement by the second that something was obvious, the second knew that they had hours of work ahead of them in trying to understand it. Intuitive flashes are useful like that in that they give us (possibly true) statements that we may be able to validate, but they still need left-brained validation.

  10. I agree with the idea of intuition being a sudden, info-related sub-conscious reaction to our environments that (hopefully) precede a conscious reaction when considered.

    I trust my spidey-senses when I stupidly place myself in possibly bad situations. When the brain-tingling starts, it sometimes indicates that I wasn’t thinking properly when I made a decision, and it (hopefully) steers me towards actively thinking before saying/doing.

    If my intuition regards people, I really try to ignore it at first and try to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Mostly because I know I’ve made bad first impressions before. Also, I’m a little paranoid about succumbing to my own confirmation bias when I think things like, “She’s a jerk, I knew it!” because that’ll just make me think I’m good at that when I’m really not.

  11. Perhaps this has something to do with the idea promoted in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink? I don’t know. I have been told that I do size up people quite well usually by the first or second meeting. But is that intuition? Or being able to recognize some subconscious signals a person sends? Or just plain confirmation bias? I have no idea.

    But I do know one area in which my intuition is an absolute FAIL: recognizing landscapes in order to navigate through relatively unfamiliar territory. I have been known to drive confidently for hours through place going in a completely different direction than the intended destination.

  12. When it comes to mathematical problems my intuitions steer me well, I can solve many problems by ‘feel’.

    But my intuition is useless with people.

  13. We received a warning email circulating through our kindergarten about powerful magnets in children’s toys which could be dangerous if swallowed. My intuition told me this was snopes-material – just another groundless internet-vectored panic. But actually it turned out to be a real issue and all the relevant toys had to be recalled/binned.

  14. My intuition failed me in my choice of career; should’ve gone with either the automotive or aerospace industry instead of the marine industry.

  15. I have learned to listen to my intuition in a George Costanza way. When it comes to parenting, I generally do the opposite of what feels right.

    I find this works well since my intuition tells me to beat my children in WalMart.

  16. I recall reading recently that there are cognitive process that are ongoing in the brain that we may not be aware of that supply conclusions and information at different points as we process our environment and situations. I think some people process different situations better than others and some are better at subconsciously reading social situations and this can be ascribed to intuition. However I expect our perceptions are just as often inaccurate and faulty as they often draw us toward sought after and preferred conclusions as readily as accurate ones. My clients lie to me constantly, so I generally take what they tell me with a grain of salt and recognize I don’t always have a good read on people. And I do a hell of a lot better with people problems than math problems.

    @heidiho: Beating them in Macy’s or Whole Foods is what’ll get you in trouble! ;-)

  17. My entire thought process when approaching a problem or coming up with a concept starts off as a kind of intuition – a kind of general “feel” to whatever it is I’m analyzing. From there, logical processes take over, but more often than not the initial “shape” of the thing that I get from intuition is fairly accurate.

    I just attribute this to my brain being smarter than I am.

  18. @Rebel 16: This is actually borne out by scientific studies in social psychology. What we may call “intuition” is nothing but automatic thinking – thinking on a sub-conscious or uncounscious level, that is effortless and often irrational. This is the most common style of thinking when it comes to social situations, because our mind can’t be bothered to expend the amount of time and energy required to consciously think about the tons of info coming at us from all directions. So we rely on heuristics, such as “representativeness”, which conjurs up a preconception (schema) we have already formed about the typical case and just throws that out there to explain another’s behavior. Confirmation bias is also an “intuitive” process. This can be very dangerous, and can lead to erros in judgment, particularly with regard to people and relationships.

    That being said, I still rely on my intuition (preconceptions) more often than not, because they were formed over many years through experience, and because I’m a lazy-ass bastard. This has lead to no end of trouble with the women in my life. ;-)

  19. @Garrison22: Hmmm, perhaps there’s a market for workshops to teach otherwise intelligent folk how to suppress their intuition in social situations. If the goal’s better relationships and an upswing in your sex life I can see book deals and a successful stint on the lecture circuit in your future!!

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