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We know not why

Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, David G. Myers, Yale University Press: 336 pp., $24.95

May 18, 2003|Michael Shermer | Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and the author of "In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace."

Imagine yourself a contestant on the classic television game show "Let's Make a Deal." You must choose one of three doors, behind one of which is a brand-new automobile (while behind the other two are goats). You choose door No. 1. Host Monty Hall, who knows what is behind all the doors, shows you what's behind door No. 2, a goat, then inquires: Would you like to keep the door you chose or switch? It's 50-50, so it doesn't matter, right?

Wrong. You had a 1 in 3 chance to start, but now that Monty has shown you one of the losing doors, you have a 2/3 chance of winning by switching doors. This is a counterintuitive problem that drives people batty because our brains are wired to think binary when there are two choices, so intuitively with two doors left it feels like a 50-50 guess (if you had 10 doors and Monty eliminated 8 of them, you would of course switch). This is just one of numerous examples presented by Hope College psychologist David G. Myers in his latest book on the "powers and perils" of intuition.

The perils are legion. Gamblers' intuitions, for example, are notoriously flawed (to the profitable delight of casino operators). You've hit five reds in a row on the roulette wheel. Should you stay with red because you are on a "hot streak" or should you switch because black is "due"? It doesn't matter because the roulette wheel has no memory, but try telling that to the happy gambler whose pile of chips grows before his eyes.

What about hot streaks in sports? Intuitively don't we just know that when Kobe's hot he can't miss? Intuitively yes, but Myers presents the findings of a fascinating 1985 study of "hot hands" in basketball by statisticians Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky, who analyzed every basket shot by the Philadelphia 76ers for an entire season. They discovered that the probability of a player hitting a second shot did not increase following an initial successful basket (beyond what one would expect by chance and the average shooting percentage of the player).

What they found is so counterintuitive that it is jarring to the sensibilities: the number of streaks, or successful baskets in sequence, did not exceed the predictions of a statistical coin-flip model. That is, if you conduct a coin-flipping experiment and record heads or tails, you will shortly encounter streaks similar to the ones made by the players of the 76ers or by any other teams. On average and in the long run, you will flip five heads or tails in a row once in every 32 sequences of five tosses. Players may feel "hot" when they have games that fall into the high range of chance expectations, but science shows that this intuition is an illusion.

Myers systematically catalogs the countless ways our intuitions about the world lead us astray: We rewrite our past to fit present beliefs and moods, we badly misinterpret the source and meaning of our emotions, we are subject to the hindsight bias by which we falsely surmise that we knew it all along, we succumb to the self-serving bias by which we think we are far more important than we really are, we see illusory correlations that do not exist (superstitions), and we fall for the confirmation bias, which leads us to look for and find evidence for what we already believe.

Myers' demonstration that intuition cannot be trusted triggered my own confirmation bias: Everyone knows that intuition is just mushy New Age nonsense. But as Myers demonstrates through countless well-documented experiments, our intuitions about intuition may be wrong. There is something else going on in the brain. That something else, for lack of a better word (and I do wish there were a better word), is intuition, or what Myers defines as "our capacity for direct knowledge, for immediate insight without observation or reason."

Consider the research by Harvard's Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, who discovered that the evaluation of teachers by students who watched a 30-second video clip of the teacher were remarkably similar to those of students who had taken the course. Even three two-second video clips of that teacher yielded a striking .72 correlation (on a scale from .01 to .99) with the course student evaluations.

Occasionally the staccato pacing of Myers' scientific analysis is jarringly punctuated with such sentimental expressions as, "What the conscious mind cannot understand, the heart knows," and a few too many pithy and over-familiar witticisms of writers and poets. But these are easily overlooked by the hundreds of studies presented to make his case that intuition is a fruitful field of scientific analysis.

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