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Intuition About Ourselves: When To Think Twice

Intuition is suspect. Of course, we can hear how skeptical we should be about our “gut” feelings, and then choose not to act on this doubt. Faith and trust in experts is at an all-time low. People may be thinking, all we have is our intuition.

But it’s worth another look.

For example, reading a face, we can pretty much tell how someone feels, right?  According to Lisa Feldman-Barret, our intuition about emotions is often wrong,  She writes that facial expressions indicate more than one emotion category, and also nonemotional psychological meanings, in a way that is tailored to specific situations and cultural contexts. Framed like that, it seems obvious. Yet the idea of being able to judge essential characteristics from outward indications has deep and troubling roots. Consider phrenology, or the history of madness. Assumptions about categories of people have led to brutality.

It’s tempting to dismiss scientific racism and abusive medicine as being in the past, – oh, that silly old ignorant past -- but this is a dangerous dodge. Apart from the role these prejudices continue to play – Artificial Intelligence (AI)  is a scary example -- understanding the origins and dynamics of our biases is key to dismantling them*.

     In The Blind Storyteller:  How We Reason About Human Nature, psychologist Iris Berent explores why our intuitions about ourselves are wrong. She suggests that it is due to two core innate biases: Dualism and Essentialism. As she explains, the consequences of our mistaken intuitionsare vast. They “meddle with our understanding of the brain, promote biases towards psychiatric disorders, and implant irrational beliefs about AI.”

Essentialism is the core belief that some hidden, immutable essence in a living thing informs its identity and is shared by members of its category. According to naive psychology, this explains things for us like family resemblance. Essentialism allows us to distinguish between a dog and a cat, for example. But this intuition also runs afoul of reality.

For example, according to joint work by Berent and Feldman-Barret, becauuse we conclude that emotions are embodied, we decide they must therefore be innate. By contrast, we consider knowledge immaterial and consequently, it must be acquired. Their studies show that these are persistent cognitive biases. They are careful to emphasize that their work is focused on the mistaken logic shown by participants, not on the broader question about whether emotions actually are embodied (this question is still contested). They write, “Given that embodied brain states can demonstrably arise either innately or by learning, the logic that “if it’s the body (e.g., brain) it’s inborn” is simply wrong.”

As you might expect, essentialist bias has been documented to contribute to misunderstanding and stigma about mental illness. If we are told that a mental health issue is physical (it’s been revealed in brain scans), then participants envision it as more entrenched -- and as in the case of schizophrenia – more dangerous. By contrast, per Dualism, if we believe that it is only mental or immaterial, such as dyslexia, then we think it is more easily addressed. In fact, as EEGer clinicians know (and anyone who has seen the effects of neuroplasticity agrees), setting arbitrary distinctions between brain and body, or between mental and physical, is often misguided and unhelpful.

Essentialist bias about race has been shown to promote inter-ethnic bias in children, though it depends on their environment. And because humans intuitively seek to reduce cognitive dissonance, unexamined bias provides justification for inequality.

We need our intuition. It provides a shortcut for making decisions when information is limited. But while making such decisions, it’s important to acknowledge the risks. Especially under conditions of threat or stress, we are confident – we “know” what we see and feel, even when we are wrong. In this TED talk about mood, Feldman-Barret describes how threat shapes the perceptions of a soldier.

As a steady drumming of police shootings in the US should make clear, it’s critical that we evaluate our intuitions, and come to understand the links between emotion, perception, and behavior.


*Bias can be changed. For example, a study about stereotype threat, where students perform worse on a test when reminded of social prejudice against them, showed that the effect could be countered by inviting the students to view the test as a challenge.


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