Psychologist's Book Views the
Powers and Perils of Intuition
Posted August 15, 2002
HOLLAND -- "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
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
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
"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
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,"
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
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
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
"Intuition: Its Powers and Perils" is available
in hardcover, and retails for $24.95. Free excerpts are
available at www.davidmyers.org.