Don’t Trust Your Intuition

For many years I have been a strong proponent of the idea of trusting one’s intuition. This comes from an understanding that the heart center is the origin of intuition and that this is the place where we connect with others in the world and with nature and perhaps with God or a higher power as well. There is indeed evidence of a “heart-brain” as there are clusters of neurons in the chest area that not only receive input from the brain inside the skull, but also send input to that skull-brain. Trusting one’s intuition then would involve paying close attention to what we are feeling about a certain situation or a certain decision that we need to make and trusting that feeling. In my life I have had good experiences in doing just that. For example, back in the 1980’s I was living with my wife and newborn child in North Carolina. We both had good jobs. We were buying our first ever home. We had put a down payment on a ten acre lot where we planned to eventually build a house. We had a circle of friends. Both she and I had a strong intuition that we should move across country to the city where I was born. From a rational point of view this made no sense. We would have to sell our house, sell our newly acquired ten acre plot, quit our jobs, and move with a new born baby and a number of cats. We ignored the obvious challenges and irrationality of the plan and did it anyway, and it was one of the best decisions of our lives. I do not regret listening to my intuition and the intuition of my wife.

So why would I now contradict myself and negate the value of the intuition? Primarily my change in attitude comes from learning more about implicit bias from the book Blindspot by Banaji and Greenwald published in 2016. In the book the authors discuss mindbugs, stereotypes and the many ways in which unconscious beliefs influence our everyday decisions without our conscious awareness. They describe an experiment conducted in 1970 by the British psychologist Henri Tajfel where human subjects were asked to estimate the number of dots on a page. Some of the individuals were determined to be “over-estimators” and some “under-estimators.” Unbeknownst to the subjects, they were then randomly assigned to one or the other group regardless of how many dots each person guessed. They were then given further tests that showed that the individuals ended up favoring members of their group over the other group in terms of sharing resources. This is an illustration of the power of the “us and them” mentality that appears to be wired into us as human beings. The subjects in the experiment and in similar experiments conducted over the years were unaware of their biases, not even realizing they were favoring members of “their group” over the “other group.” Utilizing sophisticated brain imaging techniques, there is now evidence that we use different parts of our brain to think about people with whom we identify with, than with people we see as “different from ourselves.” The part of the brain we utilize when thinking about someone whom we see as belonging to our group is the same part of the brain that we utilize when thinking about ourselves. The implication here is that we would be more likely to favor those individuals when making decisions such as whom to hire in an interview, how strict a sentences to impose if we are a judge, whom to arrest and whom to give a warning to if we are a police officer, etc.

It occurs to me then that in these decision making situations we might rely on our intuition, not realizing the bias we may have toward someone resembling us and our bias against someone who does not resemble us. The authors conclude that in-group favoritism may be the largest factor involved in contributing to discrimination in our society.

The authors of Blindspot have put together a number of Implicit Association Tests or IATs. These creative instruments will give the test taker important information about unconscious preferences that will likely influence decisions. They have tests for the following categories: Race, Sexuality, Presidents, Weight, Gender-Science, Weapons, Age, Native, Asian, Arab-Muslim, Skin-tone, Disability, and Gender-Career. You can access these tests online at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html. By identifying the areas where your bias is unknown to you but still potentially influencing your decisions, it may be possible for you to pause before making decisions that relate to these various stereotypes.

 I have not, however, given up on the idea of paying attention to intuition. I have this idea that one can learn to distinguish between a genuine intuition and an impulse. Impulses are more likely to be strongly influenced by implicit biases than intuitions. However how do we differentiate these two very similar conditions? This is a challenge and I do not have an answer, thus the adage: “Don’t trust your intuition.”

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