Psychopathology: Outmoded Intuitive Theories

Rudimentary explanations from childhood interfere with an optimal adulthood.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Andrew Shtulman’s entertaining and informative 2017 book, Scienceblind, argues that intuitive theories of how things work interfere with scientific thinking, largely because intuitive theories work—or seem to—in many situations, and largely because we rehearse them for so long that they become hard to give up.

Science is not laid down on a blank slate but on a pre-existing, rudimentary network of understandings and heuristics. Even experts frequently resort to their intuitive theories as soon as they leave the laboratory or the classroom, as Shtulman repeatedly demonstrates. I was naturally interested in the material as a science educator, and Shtulman indeed expounds on the difficulties of teaching scientific ideas in the face of intuitive theories. (I teach clinical theories to graduate students who struggle to think behaviorally, systemically, or psychoanalytically because they are committed to their intuitive theories, especially the theory that people behave as they do because they “decide” to behave that way.)

Intuitive theories are “our untutored explanations for how the world works.” These theories, such as the idea that the ground is stationary and the idea that a lack of relative motion means that an object is at rest, guide us adequately through much of our lives. Scientific theories, such as the idea that the earth moves and changes, and the idea that objects are moving even when they are not moving in relation to ourselves, upset our tried-and-seemingly-true ideas. When we have to consider what happens to the supposedly static earth under the influence of carbon emissions, or what happens to an object when it’s dropped from an airplane (and its motion relative to the earth is what matters rather than its lack of motion relative to ourselves), then our intuitive theories fail.

Intuitive theories about the social world underlie and even constitute psychopathology. I explained what I mean by psychopathology versus a psychiatric disorder here, the short version of which is a problematic behavioral tendency not based on a biological brain problem. Intuitive theories about the social world are often depicted in dreams and early memories. These theories of how the world works interfere with acquiring healthier, more realistic constructions of the social world.

For example, a depressed woman is stretched to the breaking point meeting the demands of work and family, unable to find any meaning or joy in her day to day grind. The situation reminds her, for reasons she can’t specify, of an early memory in which she was alone in the kitchen after her mother had put a cake in the oven. She got the beaters off the counter and licked the batter off them.

Her intuitive theory could be put into words: Needs are met only when you’re alone. This theory interferes with a more mature, evidence-based theory that plenty of people enjoy shared pleasurable experiences. Her untutored explanation is constantly confirmed, especially because her selflessness among others gently repels others who expect mutuality and attracts others who expect her to be a doormat, or it brings out this aspect in others.

You can think of intuitive theories about the social world as a reliance on outdated maps. Psychopathology is like trying to get around in your city using a map that is decades old and drawn by a child. Scienceblind documents numerous efforts to educate people about the principles of science, from toddlers to physics majors, with little success. Sure, people easily learn to mimic answers on tests, but when required to apply the knowledge to novel situations, well, it takes a long time.

The implication for therapy is pretty obvious. Teaching patients to think differently from their earliest proclivities and expectations can get them to parrot ideas in therapy, but it doesn’t stand up to new situations. There is some teaching in even the most non-directive therapy—teaching how to think psychologically, how to collaborate, how to explore—but real change comes from using an old map in therapy and discovering how it doesn’t apply.

For example, the depressed woman I mentioned might organize herself in therapy around becoming an ideal patient, banning all joy and self-indulgence in the therapist’s presence. Many therapists will enjoy this, and they will respond by telling stories, giving advice, feeling wise, and so on. A good therapist, though, spots the problem: The patient never “licks the beaters” when the therapist is present. Even some advanced therapists will offer pleasant moments, but this doesn’t tackle the inhibitions that operate outside the therapy office. So, a really good therapist will work within the metaphor and explore with her what stops her when a moment of enjoyment or gratification was available but not pursued. One way of “exploring” this is to empathize with her desires and fears.

Shtulman writes, “Any educator who wants to help students confront and correct their intuitive theories needs to tailor his or her instruction to those theories.” This rhymes with the advice to use the patient’s outdated map as a starting place. If you can recall the days before GPS, you can imagine a driver who is lost asking you for directions while holding a map on his lap. A good place to start is by noting what’s wrong with his map. “You’re holding it sideways,” or “All these streets are one-way now,” or “That’s a map of Denver; this is Boston.”

In therapy, this plays out by using the map of moms who leave beaters on the counter and girls who lick them only in private, rather than just saying that old map is irrelevant to contemporary interactions with her family and colleagues. For example, the therapist might notice that this patient often responds to comments evaluatively or suspiciously rather than trying them on for size, rather than tasting them. In Shtulman’s phrasing, we must “get our hands dirty in the details of the knowledge itself: the concepts that need to be differentiated, collapsed, reanalyzed, or discarded.” Shtulman also provides the conceptual basis for doing therapy and the problem with psychopathology when he writes, “Let’s not let the theories we construct as children constrain the opportunities we pursue as adults.”

Effective psychotherapy for most people takes about a year or two (Shedler & Gnaulati, 2020). Unfortunately, not everyone can afford it, and even if they could, there aren’t enough really good therapists to go around. I support thinking about a more equitable way than wealth to distribute this resource, but I don’t like dividing it up so that no one gets their year or two and everyone gets a few sessions. Similarly, I’m all for some criterion other than wealth to prioritize who gets heart transplants, but I’m against giving everyone who needs one a tenth of a heart.


Shtulman, A. (2017). Scienceblind: Why our intuitive theories about the world are so often wrong. Basic Books.

Shedler, J. & Gnaulati, E. (2020). The tyranny of time. Psychotherapy Networker.