Friday, June 25, 2010

On Intuition

Perhaps my greatest annoyance with respect to the Culture Wars is the reliance on "common sense" to justify biases, opinions, and points of view. Rarely does common sense allow us to transcend such things, but only further entrench them using the premise that one's intuitive common sense is always right.

Whether folks are declaring a study they haven't read to be wrong because the study doesn't correspond with their own common sense, or claiming that the government needs fewer smarty-pantses and more folks who'll just go with their guts on stuff, the reaction against critical thinking is very real, particularly on the right.

The appeal to common sense is based on the idea that a person's snap intuition is an accurate measure of universal truth, and thus, more reliable than whatever it is that the Other Side is saying that is contradictory. It is effortless and easy. It is the cocksure self-assurance that all the things one already knows in life are also, coincidentally, the things that are absolutely true. Commonsensical ideas, as such, require no revision in light of different, better, or contradictory evidence because that sort of evidence is, by definition, not commonsensical and, therefore, wrong and ridiculous. Relying on common sense is like the heterosexual "marriage defender" whose only "marriage defense" actions involve opposing same-sex marriage rather than, say, opposing divorce. It is cheap. Indeed, it costs nothing.

And so, we come to an interesting article about intuition, written by psychologists Daniel J. Simons and Christopher F. Chabris. While some believe that certain theories about common sense give them a "broad license to rely on intuition and dispense with analysis" in a wide variety of contexts, "[t]he key to successful decision making is knowing when to trust your intuition and when to be wary of it."

For instance, intuition may great for subjective decisions such as "deciding which ice cream we like more," but not so great for getting to the correct answer of an objective determination. Research also shows that confidence in our accuracy in "intuitively" knowing how our minds work, such as in remembering key details of previous events "is largely an illusion." Further, we tend to infer causation from anecdotes and vivid examples, rejecting scientific data.

The authors end:

"Intuition is not always wrong, but neither is it a shortcut around the hard work of logical analysis and rational choice. The trouble with intuition is that while intuitive modes of thought are easier to use than analytical modes, they are poorly adapted to many circumstances and decisions we face in the modern world. If we follow our gut instincts, we will talk on the telephone while we drive, have too much trust in eyewitnesses, and believe we know what causes what—in health care, finance, politics, and every other domain—without even realizing that we haven't considered the right evidence, let alone come to the right conclusions."

[Thanks to Lilian for passing along the cited article.]

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