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Evolutionary Psychology

5 Ways Our Intuition Leads Us Astray

We are not programmed to see the world in an objective manner.

Key points

  • Many people feel very confident about following their intuition.
  • We easily fall into predictable cognitive traps when we blindly follow intuition and disregard new information.
  • We can become more socially effective by becoming aware of the limits of our intuition.
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I frequently encounter people who pride themselves on their intuition. They humbly, and sometimes not-so-humbly, brag about their ability to quickly size up social situations and other people, and then make snap judgments. At the beginning of a new academic term, I have occasionally had excited students tell me how much they look forward to my class because they “know people” or are “good with people,” and they are confident that this will serve them well in pursuit of good grades in psychology courses.

I am always polite when these conversations take place, but such comments raise red flags signaling that the individual I am talking to probably is not as astute in social situations as they think they are. “Going with your gut” and believing that taking some time to process new information about others is unnecessary reflects a naivete about how we think.

Becoming aware of the limitations of our intuition and the cognitive traps that it can lead us into is essential for making us as socially effective as we can be. Knowing that intuition can lead us astray will not completely protect us from our cognitive biases, but it may make us more cautious about the conclusions we draw and more willing to change our minds as new information comes to light.

Why would our intuition be designed to ever steer us wrong?

Evolution Has Not Designed Our Minds to See the Social World Objectively

Natural selection has ruthlessly shaped our perceptual machinery to accurately decode what is going on in the physical world around us. People who could not tell where the edge of the cliff was or whether the animal at their feet was a kitten or a rattlesnake did not do very well. Modern humans who cannot be sure if a vehicle is approaching as they cross a busy street would be at a similar disadvantage. Consequently, our perceptions about the physical world are usually pretty reliable.

On the other hand, seeing the social world in a totally objective fashion may not have always been advantageous. Being acutely aware of our own shortcomings or being realistically pessimistic about our future could undermine our ability to persevere in the face of hardship and place us at a disadvantage in competition with others who saw themselves and their futures through more rose-colored glasses. Similarly, too easily finding fault with our in-groups could undermine loyalty and lead to ostracism from the group, which would have been tantamount to a death sentence in our prehistoric ancestral environment.

And so, we came to see the social world in ways that were advantageous to us rather than as it actually is. Psychologists have identified a long list of cognitive biases that can get us in trouble; here are five that are pervasive:

We Confuse Observations with Inferences

When I lecture about this in my classes, I sometimes hold up a piece of chalk and ask my students what they can tell me about it just by looking at it. Frequent responses include, “it is white,” “it will break if you drop it,” “it is cylindrical,” and “you can write with it.” Not all of these statements are observations. Seeing the object as cylindrical and white are observations, but believing that it will break if it falls or that you can write with it are inferences that are drawn on the assumption that the object is, in fact, a piece of chalk. If the object turns out to be a small piece of white plastic or a cigarette, the inferences would lead to incorrect predictions.

In this same way, we may confuse behaviors and traits that we have actually observed in ourselves and others with assumptions that we are making, and blurring this distinction can lead to misguided social decisions.

Confirmation Bias

When we believe that something is true, we work very hard at finding evidence that we are correct. It does not come naturally for us to try to disprove our beliefs by seeking contradictory evidence. Consequently, we notice and easily remember things that confirm our beliefs but gloss over stuff that contradicts them. A person who believes that a full moon results in all sorts of crazy behavior will say, “Ah-Hah!” and vividly remember incidents that fall in line with that belief, but that same individual is likely to ignore all of the times when weird stuff happens in the absence of a full moon or when there is a full moon and nothing unusual occurs.

We carry this same bias into social situations. The information that we process about other people is guided by our stereotypes of groups and our first impressions of individuals, and we are just as motivated to preserve these illusions as we would be to preserve our belief in the behavioral effects of the full moon.

In other words, we take unfair advantage of coincidences to protect our view of how the world and other people work.

Hindsight Bias

Psychology can be difficult to study because many of the conclusions drawn by researchers seem like common sense to us and we convince ourselves that this is something we already knew. Students skimming through the textbook see information that sounds right and the upcoming test looks easy because they lull themselves into thinking that we are simply covering stuff that they already understand.

The problem is that we all have been exposed to bits of folk wisdom that are floating around and there are different bits of wisdom available to explain almost anything. Social psychologists have sometimes referred to this common wisdom as “Bubbapsychology.” The word is derived from an old Yiddish word for grandmother, Bobe, and it is psychology that everyone’s grandmother already knows to be true, so why bother doing research on it?

A classic example of this is the contradictory beliefs about what draws people together in romantic relationships. We all know that “opposites attract,” but we also know that “birds of a feather flock together.” Thus, a student forced to choose between these two alternatives on a multiple-choice test in a social psychology class may be in trouble if they are relying on bubbapsychology rather than on what they have learned through careful study of the textbook.

The Power of the Particular

We evolved in a world where we, or at least one of our relatives, knew everyone who mattered to us. Our ancestors had to cooperate with each other for success against out-groups, but they also had to recognize that these same in-group members were their main competitors when it came to dividing limited resources.

The cognitive skill that delivered the greatest payoff in this world was remembering details about individuals: Who was a reliable, trustworthy person, who was a cheater, and who would be a reproductively valuable mate. There was little need for thinking statistically about large numbers of unknown others, and, to this day, we like stories about individuals. The nightly news is usually a series of tales about particular people: the scandals of celebrities, the suffering of hurricane victims, and the wrangling of politicians.

Because of this, we find ourselves strongly persuaded by individual examples, and we give these a lot more weight in our deliberations than abstract but potentially more accurate information.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

One of the most durable of our cognitive biases is the fundamental attribution error. This is our tendency to hold other people more accountable for their actions than we should by attributing their behavior to internal motives or personality traits while disregarding the influence of situational constraints and other external forces on their behavior. As a result, we tend to praise and blame people more than we probably should in situations where their behavior results in good versus bad outcomes.

Curiously, we only do this when we are judging others. When explaining the causes of our own behavior, especially when it leads to bad outcomes, we are much more likely to use expressions such as “I really didn’t have much choice” or “I was just doing what I was told” to make sense of what happened.

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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