Brain Pickings

How Our Minds Mislead Us: The Marvels and Flaws of Our Intuition

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“The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct.”

Every year, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman summons some of our era’s greatest thinkers and unleashes them on one provocative question, whether it’s the single most elegant theory of how the world works or the best way to enhance our cognitive toolkit. This year, he sets out on the most ambitious quest yet, a meta-exploration of thought itself: Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (public library) collects short essays and lecture adaptations from such celebrated and wide-ranging (though not in gender) minds as Daniel Dennett, Jonathan Haidt, Dan Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson, covering subjects as diverse as morality, essentialism, and the adolescent brain.

One of the most provocative contributions comes from Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman — author of the indispensable Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of the best psychology books of 2012 — who examines “the marvels and the flaws of intuitive thinking.”

In the 1970s, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, self-crowned “prophets of irrationality,” began studying what they called “heuristics and biases” — mental shortcuts we take, which frequently result in cognitive errors. Those errors, however, reveal a great deal about how our minds work:

If you want to characterize how something is done, then one of the most powerful ways of characterizing how the mind does anything is by looking at the errors that the mind produces while it’s doing it because the errors tell you what it is doing. Correct performance tells you much less about the procedure than the errors do.

One of the most fascinating examples of heuristics and biases is what we call intuition — a complex cluster of cognitive processes, sometimes helpful but often misleading. Kahneman notes that thoughts come to mind in one of two ways: Either by “orderly computation,” which involves a series of stages of remembering rules and then applying them, or by perception, an evolutionary function that allows us to predict outcomes based on what we’re perceiving. (For instance, seeing a woman’s angry face helps us predict the general sentiment and disposition of what she’s about to say.) It is the latter mode that precipitates intuition. Kahneman explains the interplay:

There is no sharp line between intuition and perception. … Perception is predictive. . . . If you want to understand intuition, it is very useful to understand perception, because so many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of word knowledge organized in different ways more than mere perception. But some very basic characteristics [of] perception are extended almost directly to intuitive thinking.

He then considers how the two types of mental operations established by modern cognitive science illuminate intuition:

Type 1 is automatic, effortless, often unconscious, and associatively coherent. . . . Type 2 is controlled, effortful, usually conscious, tends to be logically coherent, rule-governed. Perception and intuition are Type 1. … Type 2 is more controlled, slower, is more deliberate. . . . Type 2 is who we think we are. [And yet] if one made a film on this, Type 2 would be a secondary character who thinks that he is the hero because that’s who we think we are, but in fact, it’s Type 1 that does most of the work, and it’s most of the work that is completely hidden from us.

Type 1 also encompasses all of our practiced skills — for instance, driving, speaking, and understanding a language — which after a certain threshold of mastery enter autopilot mode. (Though this presents its own set of problems.) Underpinning that mode of thinking is our associative memory, which Kahneman unpacks:

You have to think of [your associative memory] as a huge repository of ideas, linked to each other in many ways, including causal links and other links, and activation spreading from ideas to other ideas until a small subset of that enormous network is illuminated, and the subset is what’s happening in the mind at the moment. You’re not conscious of it, you’re conscious of very little of it.

This leads to something Kahneman has termed “associative coherence” — the notion that “everything reinforces everything else.” Much like our attention, which sees only what it wants and expects to see, our associative memory looks to reinforce our existing patterns of association and deliberately discounts evidence that contradicts them. And therein lies the triumph and tragedy of our intuitive mind:

The thing about the system is that it settles into a stable representation of reality, and that is just a marvelous accomplishment. … That’s not a flaw, that’s a marvel. [But] coherence has its cost.

Coherence means that you’re going to adopt one interpretation in general. Ambiguity tends to be suppressed. This is part of the mechanism that you have here that ideas activate other ideas and the more coherent they are, the more likely they are to activate each other. Other things that don’t fit fall away by the wayside. We’re enforcing coherent interpretations. We see the world as much more coherent than it is.

Put another way, our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — which, ironically, is critical to both our creativity and the richness of our lives — leads us to lock down safe, comfortable, familiar interpretations, even if they are only partial representations of or fully disconnected from reality.

The Type 1 modality of thought gives rise to a System 1 of interpretation, which is at the heart of what we call “intuition” — but which is far less accurate and reliable than we like to believe:

System 1 infers and invents causes and intentions. [This] happens automatically. Infants have it. . . . We’re equipped … for the perception of causality.

It neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt and … exaggerates coherence. Associative coherence [is] in large part where the marvels turn into flaws. We see a world that is vastly more coherent than the world actually is. That’s because of this coherence-creating mechanism that we have. We have a sense-making organ in our heads, and we tend to see things that are emotionally coherent, and that are associatively coherent.

But the greatest culprit in the failures of our intuition is another cognitive property Kahneman names “what you see is all there is” — a powerful and persistent flaw of System-1 thinking:

This is a mechanism that takes whatever information is available and makes the best possible story out of the information currently available, and tells you very little about information it doesn’t have. So what you get are people jumping to conclusions. I call this a “machine for jumping to conclusions.”

This jumping to conclusions, Kahneman adds, is immediate and based on unreliable information. And that’s a problem:

That will very often create a flaw. It will create overconfidence. The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. . . . People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.

Most treacherous of all is our tendency to use our very confidence — and overconfidence — as evidence itself:

What’s interesting is that many a time people have intuitions that they’re equally confident about except they’re wrong. That happens through the mechanism I call “the mechanism of substitution.” You have been asked a question, and instead you answer another question, but that answer comes by itself with complete confidence, and you’re not aware that you’re doing something that you’re not an expert on because you have one answer. Subjectively, whether it’s right or wrong, it feels exactly the same. Whether it’s based on a lot of information, or a little information, this is something that you may step back and have a look at. But the subjective sense of confidence can be the same for intuition that arrives from expertise, and for intuitions that arise from heuristics. . . .

In other words, intuition, like attention, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator [that] asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that” — a humbling antidote to our culture’s propensity for self-righteousness, and above all a reminder to allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

Thinking is excellent and mind-expanding in its entirety. Complement it with Brockman’s This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the best psychology books of 2012.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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