posted August 15, 2002

Book Views the Powers and Perils of Intuition

"Trust your feelings" or "The facts speak for themselves"? In his new look at intuition, psychologist Dr. David Myers of the Hope College faculty suggests developing a healthy appreciation for both points of view.

In his new book "Intuition: Its Powers and Perils," published by Yale University Press, Myers considers psychology's take on the "voice within," giving attention to a mix of topics ranging from first impressions, to the fear of flying, playing the lottery, shooting streaks in basketball and choosing stocks.

"The new research on the powers of automatic, out- of-sight information processing that has accumulated over the last 10 years is fascinating," said Myers, who is the John Dirk Werkman Professor of Psychology at Hope. "Psychological science gives new affirmation of the huge powers of unconscious, intuitive information processing and how it guides our lives. But it also points us to the perils."

As one example of how intuition can go wrong, Myers considers an example from the sports world: the "hot hand" in basketball--the way that scoring streaks are often interpreted as meaningful. In one study, he writes, "nine of 10 fans agreed that a player has a better chance of making a shot after just making two or three shots than after just missing two or three shots," and he quotes coaches and commentators who share the view.

Analysis of thousands of shot sequences tells another story, according to Myers: each player's overall average is the best predictor of what is likely to happen next.

"Could it really be that nearly all players, coaches, and fans--after observing thousands of shot sequences--are deluded in believing that players are more likely to score after scoring and miss after missing?," he writes. "Yes, it really could be. And the reason is simple. They're not misperceiving streaks--basketball shooting is streaky--they are misinterpreting them."

He recognizes that his counter-intuitive sport analysis isn't necessarily popular or accepted. The book notes that one broadcaster responded to the information with, "Please tell the stat man to get a life."

However, Myers writes, intuition also gets things right. In one study of first impressions, student instant evaluations of teachers based on a brief video clip reflected the average ratings given at the end of the semester by students who had been in the entire course. In another study, people in China accurately guessed Americans' extrovertedness based solely on photos, while their American counterparts did the same in return.

"There is ancient biological wisdom to this express link between perception and response," he writes. "Those who could read a person accurately were more likely to survive and leave descendants, which helps explain why humans today can detect at a glance the facial expressions of anger, sadness, fear, or pleasure. Small wonder that the first 10 seconds of a relationship tell us a great deal, or that our capacity for reading nonverbal cues crosses cultures."

In an anecdotal example, Myers relays the story of a woman who encountered a polite, clean-cut youth while leaving her church prayer group. Something about him seemed wrong to her as they talked, and ultimately she called the police. It turned out that he had murdered his mother, a crime that had not yet been discovered.

"Our speedy social intuition packs enough insight to serve us well," Myers writes.

Myers hopes his book will help people distinguish between the useful instincts and the misguided interpretations that can deceive them. "It's really a book that aims to enhance people's powers of critical thinking," he said.

For example, while helpful in some situations, superficial impressions can be deceptive in others. Two psychologists' review of 85 years of personnel selection research found that interviews "are weak predictors" in anticipating job productivity, suggesting that employers consider carefully their approach to hiring. "If there's a contest between what your gut tells you about someone and what test scores, work samples, and peer ratings tell you, go with the latter," Myers writes.

Intuition, he notes, also tends to place too much emphasis on vivid examples. That one person won $197 million in a lottery is remembered more readily than the 328 million losing tickets that built the jackpot. Images of horrific plane crashes override awareness of the thousands of safe flights daily, such that travelers are more concerned about flying than the statistically-riskier drive to the airport.

"Dramatic outcomes capture our attention; probabilities we hardly grasp," he said. "The result: We overvalue lottery tickets, overestimate flight risk, and underestimate the dangers of driving."

Being aware of such intuitive inclinations can help in overcoming them, according to Myers. He noted that investors, for example, can find lessons in research into "loss aversion."

Studies have found that people "feel that pain from a loss twice as keenly as we feel the pleasure from a similar-sized gain," Myers writes. "In experiments, people prefer a sure gain over flipping a coin for double or nothing. Yet they will readily flip a coin on a double or nothing chance to avert a loss."

The phenomenon, he said, is reflected in a study of 10,000 brokerage accounts, which showed that investors were more likely to sell a winning stock than a losing one.

"There's no logically right answer here--no investor knows the future value of either stock. But the preference is curious, given that, rationally, an investor's goal is to make money, not redeem past mistakes," Myers writes. "Our aversion to loss deters us from locking in the loss, which becomes real and final--not just a paper loss-- the moment we sell."

While keeping the loser might be a sound financial strategy, he said, it could also be a result of the aversion to losing. Understanding such intuitive responses, Myers feels, is key to determining how much of a role they might be playing, whatever the arena.

"When forming judgments and making decisions--in business, politics, sports, religion, and other everyday realms--discerning people will welcome the powers of their gut wisdom yet know when to restrain it with rational, reality-based critical thinking," he writes. "Most of the time, our autopilot's perceptions and intuitions are good enough, and they probably exist because they enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce. But sometimes in the modern world accuracy really matters. When it does, reason should rule."

Myers has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1967. His research and writings have appeared in a dozen books and in five dozen periodicals, from "Science" to "Scientific American." His other books for a general audience include "The Pursuit of Happiness: Who Is Happy-- And Why," "A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss" and "The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty." His textbooks for introductory and social psychology are studied at nearly 1,000 colleges and universities.

"Intuition: Its Powers and Perils" is available in hardcover, and retails for $24.95. Free excerpts are available at www.davidmyers.org.