Post No.: 0085
Instincts (or intuitions, gut feelings, hunches or whatever you want to call them) and other effortless, unconscious mental heuristic processes have their benefits for sure e.g. when we truly only have a literal split-second to make a genuine life-or-death decision, or when specific intuitions of ours are genuinely borne from a personally-developed and trained skill with a consistent history of successful experiences in a specific area of expertise we have, for which this area is not random or too chaotic (e.g. trained meteorologists with a skill in predicting whether it’ll likely rain where you are in the next hour just by looking at raw air pressure, temperature, cloud, wind and topology data). In these kinds of situations, instincts can be cognitively efficient to free up our mental workload capacity for other mental tasks that are (perceived to be) more important to focus on at a given moment.
But relying on one’s instincts, one’s unconscious, schemas, stereotypes or other such heuristics to come to a decision in any other situation, apart from those that don’t allow one literally any time to think and/or the consequences aren’t that important, is nothing to be proud of – instincts are basically what we fall onto when we have no better analytical, systematic or rational methodology for making a decision! If we know of better approaches for finding an answer (even for problems that have no objectively correct answer), or if we simply outright know the correct answer to a problem, then we’d use these as our first resorts instead of our instincts.
For example, if you had to answer the question ‘how many sovereign states are there in the world according to the United Nations right now?’ If you simply know the correct answer then you’d give that – no need to rely on your instincts. Or if you knew of some methodological approach to working out a sensible answer then you’d try that (e.g. start with how many member states are in the UN) – again, no need to rely on your instincts. But if you have no genuine clue then this is when you’re most likely to think ‘I’ll have to go with my instincts here’. Instincts in these kinds of situations are therefore a desperate last resort and would not be relied upon if you simply had a better answer or approach.
In quiz shows, when contestants simply know the answer to a question and know that it is correct then they’ll simply give that answer, or if they can somehow use some kind of logic or methodology to consciously work out a sensible answer then they’ll try that – but if they have no genuine clue whatsoever or no way to logically tackle a question then all they have left is ‘going with their instincts’.
Then often what happens is, due to self-serving biases – if a contestant gets an answer correct via guessing then he/she’ll shout about how accurate his/her gut feelings were, but if he/she gets it wrong (for the umpteenth time!) then he/she’ll keep silent about how poor his/her gut feelings were(!) This thus demonstrates a confirmation bias for the belief that they’re not that dumb or they’re actually quite knowledgeable ‘somewhere deep inside of them’ but they cannot externally elaborate how they ‘knew’ before the correct answer was revealed – only that they ‘knew it’ and can then give a post-rationalised reason for their ‘superior and accurate intuitions’ but only with the benefit of hindsight after the correct answer was revealed! (The ‘hindsight bias’.) But everyone knows for sure what the correct answer is after the correct answer is confirmed! Woof!
Under the bias of self-reporting, people tend to say, “I knew it!” whenever they guess correctly, in order to highlight the power of their own unconscious instincts, but never ever say, “Damn I didn’t know it” whenever they guess incorrectly, in order to highlight the unreliability of their own unconscious instincts(!) Barely anyone ever says, “I should not have listened to my instincts there” whenever their instincts lead them astray. Without admitting to our mistakes though, we’ll never learn from them. We are very protective of our instincts as if they represent our truest core being and biasedly don’t want to believe they can ever be seriously wrong, even though if one did scientifically or publicly record every prediction one has ever made along with each of their outcomes, one will find that one’s instincts are frequently wrong!
One way to try to protect one’s self-esteem and the belief that our instincts are accurate and reliable is to hedge one’s furry bets and essentially pick more than one multiple-choice option in multiple-choice quizzes e.g. officially pick answer A but then verbally express to the presenter of the quiz show that one actually thinks it’s answer B. When there are only 3 options, this gives the contestant a two-out-of-three chance of ‘being smart’ for knowing the correct answer! If the correct answer was A then one will be happy that one officially picked the correct answer and mention nothing more about one’s hunch that it was actually B. If the correct answer was B then one will say, “I should’ve listened to my instincts” to express how sharp one’s gut instincts are and why one should never disobey them again. But if the correct answer was C then one will hang one’s head but never admit one’s instincts are unreliable and should not always be trusted. Once again, if one did genuinely know the correct answer before the correct answer was confirmed then one would’ve simply picked that single answer with no hesitation, doubt or hedged bet.
What’s the point of knowing something but not acting upon it? If one genuinely knew what the correct answer was then why did one pick a different, incorrect, answer? Either one is silly for not choosing the answer one allegedly ‘knew’ was the correct answer or one is exaggerating for not actually knowing for sure what the correct answer was until the correct answer was confirmed. And it’s not really that prescient to make one’s predictions cover all bases or multiple bases that contradict each other (e.g. thinking ‘I think she’s lying but she could be telling the truth’)! That’d be like buying every combination of lottery numbers, waiting for the result to be confirmed, then saying, “I knew it” when one hits the jackpot with one of those tickets(!) One didn’t ‘knew it’ – one just merely defined the probability space. We should correctly call it a guess rather than evidence of our prior knowledge, and that one happened to (luckily) guess correctly rather than ‘knew it’. Okay, fur enough to say, “I knew it” if one makes a prediction, firmly planted one’s flag before the correct answer was confirmed and didn’t hedge one’s bets – but it’s just an uncertain guess if not.
Away from quiz shows and concerning any context in general, the problem with relying too quickly or heavily on our instincts, stereotypes, assumptions, preconceptions and other mental shortcuts is that we won’t consciously know what’s shaping or manipulating our decisions (e.g. primes, peripheral cues or prejudices influencing us on an unconscious level). Unconscious cues influence our minds unconsciously. Intuition that comes from heuristics like generalisations and biases get confused with intuition that comes from genuine practiced skill and experience because they feel the same when they come to us.
And if intuition is purposely used as a first resort for important decisions (instead of e.g. getting a pen and some paper out to try to reason out or calculate a decision, or ultimately looking for hard evidence to support our claims and beliefs), even when a situation is not particularly demanding or urgent, then it’s potentially arrogant or dangerous to believe that ‘we can just know deep inside of us somewhere the correct answers to anything that can be asked and we don’t need to question why or how we come to those answers’ (e.g. faith) and/or it’s lazy because we cannot be bothered to effortfully work important decisions out with consideration and due diligence even though we have the time and capacity to.
Our innate instincts are crude rules of thumb that evolved mostly during ancestral environments and for lifestyles that are very different to most of our modern ones, with generally very different threats and opportunities (e.g. we now need to be aware of gradually-building long-term threats like global warming rather than immediate existential threats like fuzzy predators potentially prowling around us). Plus now we’re gathering so much more reliable, comprehensive and refined evidence, facts and other information via empirical scientific methods to help better guide our decisions, hence we can research things and think things through more carefully – if only we put in the conscious effort rather than lazily rely on unconscious processes whenever we have more than a split-second to pause and think, or in particular whenever we have any important decisions to make or the probability of error is high.
Maybe it’s our instincts that tell us to trust in our instincts? But that’s like an ancient genetic program telling us to trust in that ancient genetic program, or a mind-control device that tells us to trust in that mind-control device(!)
The less we know, the more we (will need to) rely on heuristics to reach an answer or opinion (e.g. the less you know about a book the more you’ll judge it by its cover, the less you know about how a product works the more you’ll rely on its price as a guide to its quality, the less you know about a person the more you’ll judge him/her by his/her appearance). But these are hardly perfectly reliable rules of thumb so one shouldn’t slavishly follow such shortcuts or assumptions (e.g. it’s not even the case that store own-brand or ‘generic’ brand goods are always cheaper than equivalent well-known brand goods, or comprehensive insurance cover isn’t always more expensive than third-party-only cover). To combat knowing too little, we therefore need to learn more – and this takes effortful ‘system two’ thinking more than effortless ‘system one’ thinking.
So in summary – if you absolutely know the correct or best answer to a problem then you will just simply give that answer. Failing that, if you can logically work out the answer then you will try to work out the answer by using logic. But if you can’t do any of the above then you (must) rely on your gut instincts because that’s the only strategy you have left i.e. it’s nothing really to be proud of to rely on your gut instincts – relying on your gut instincts is just another way of saying that you haven’t a conscious clue what the best solution is or how to reach it. And confidence in one’s gut instincts is not a reliable indicator of actually getting the best solutions or being correct either.
Hearing people misapply or over-rely on their instincts and biasedly say, “I knew it” when they didn’t really know something for sure, yet never say, “I shouldn’t over-trust my instincts” when they’re wrong, is a pet peeve of mine! These kinds of instincts are sometimes the kinds that make people think ‘he’s likely not up to any good because he doesn’t look like he’s from around here’ or ‘another biscuit won’t count’.
Please tell us via the Twitter comment button below if you think people will ever say, “I should not have listened to my instincts there” whenever their instincts were wrong, as much as people say, “I’m glad I listened to my instincts” or, “I should have listened to my instincts” whenever their instincts or initial guesses were right? Or are we just too biased and automatic to credit our own instincts for everything that seems to be or go right (and to blame other people or things for everything that seems to be or go wrong)?!