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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 525-527 ( 22 November )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/myers.html

Essay Review

The vicissitudes of gut feelings

By Markus Kemmelmeier*

A review of Intuition: Its Powers and Perils  
by David G. Myers
Yale University Press, 2002.

Psychologist David G. Myers is not only a first rate textbook author, but also a master in bringing modern psychological research to a wider audience, as he proves again in his new book. In Intuition: Its power and perils, he documents the plethora of research that cognitive scientists have accumulated toward understanding the workings and consequences of everyday gut feelings. Being the splendid writer that he is, Myers not only succeeds in engaging laypersons and experts alike, but also communicates complex subjects with great facility and effectiveness.

Myers’s central thesis is that there are two co-existing cognitive subsystems, one that functions automatically, preconsciously, and without much opportunity for introspection, and one that enables deliberate and conscious thought and cognition. In the first half of the book, the author focuses on the nature of the intuitive system, devoting three chapters to its strengths and three to its weaknesses. In the seven chapters of the second half, intuition emerges as a powerful force in shaping human judgment and behavior in the domain of sports, financial investments, clinical judgment, interpersonal evaluation, risk assessment, gambling and beliefs about the paranormal. His illustrations, whether close to life or from the scientific literature, are diverse and compelling—and many times are bound to remind readers of their own everyday behavior.

The strength of intuition is perhaps most evident in interpersonal perception, where relying on spontaneous feelings can produce outcomes as good as or even better than those generated by effortful thinking. In some instances reading two seconds of another person’s body language will be an accurate predictor of their likeability, in others a subtle feeling may give us great insight into what another person if feeling, or cause us to avoid harmful people and situations without being able to articulate why. The benign forces of gut-level feeling are also manifest in experts who successfully rely on intuition as their spontaneous associations reflect the wealth of their accumulated knowledge.

To be sure, even though Myers’ review is fair and even-handed and the success of intuition undisputed, arguably the preponderance of psychological evidence points to gut-level guessing as a problematic and often dangerous strategy. The road of intuition can lead straight to hell, producing outcomes ranging from missed opportunities to economic oblivion. In their financial decisions, people are often reluctant to abandon a bad investment because their instincts tell them that they are “too much invested to quit.” Likewise, decision making is often distorted by the presumption of one’s own competence and invulnerability, leading people to engage in dangerous and sometimes embarrassing behaviors. And of course there is the well-known phenomenon that what’s on TV shapes public fears more than the sober inspection of everyday life, which, against all intuition, is quite hazardous to one’s health. For example, in the U.S. traffic accidents kill almost as many people per week than have fallen prey to global terrorism in the entire decade of the 90s.

Whether with regard to risk, opportunity or interpersonal interactions, fallacies occur when people rely on their own intuitive judgment when they shouldn’t. The practice of interviewing is a case in point. Even in the absence of any solid evidence to support the notion, employers continue to believe in the interview as a means of evaluating job candidates, and often willingly set aside objective predictors of success if the latter conflict with their personal impressions about the applicant. Myers even extends this analysis of the interview as an intuitive, but flawed selection tool to the domain of relationships, where objective factors, such as similarity in background and upbringing, are at least as important for the longevity of marriage as intuitions about the partner’s compatibility.

Myers thus reveals himself as a gentle rationalist, who does not discount the importance of feeling, but who highlights the advantages of a “let’s step back and think” approach. As he states on page 242: “Reduced to a sentence, this book’s message is that psychological science reveals some astounding powers and notable perils of unchecked intuition, and that creative yet critical thinkers will appreciate both.”

However, the last chapter of the book titled “Psychic Intuition” includes a somewhat surprising component. Whereas the majority of the chapter continues to extol the virtues of scientific rationality by debunking various so-called paranormal phenomena, the last few pages are devoted to the issue of science and spirituality. Focusing on the answers that science cannot give, Myers then argues for the interdependence between science and religion, in which the latter mandates humility in the scientific endeavor, whereas the former may help separate out genuine spirituality from pseudo-spirituality. Regardless of whether one agrees with Myers’ assessment and his Christian faith, a discussion of spirituality as an irreducible and inherently intuitive domain of life is remarkable. Not often do believers examine the underpinnings of their own beliefs with the rational standards of science, and rarely do cognitive scientists focus on the continuum between the feebleness of everyday hunches and pervasive, enriching intuitions about ultimate concerns.

Inevitably, even such an extraordinary book as Intuition will not satisfy everyone. As one may expect from a book that is written for the non-expert, the lucid illustration of the products of intuition takes precedence over their explanation. Theory is indeed provided, such as the recurring reference to the evolutionary origins of the human cognitive apparatus or the functionality of cognitive shortcuts. Yet, the broad strokes in which these ideas are covered will have some readers looking for greater detail. As such, Myers manages to plant in the reader just the right kind of intuitions about the nature of their gut feelings. But his engaging discussion of the topic generates a number of follow-up questions, which unfortunately are not addressed in the text. For example, the wonderful collection of reviewed phenomena suggests that there is great variability in whether intuition produces favorable or unfavorable outcomes, yet it does not become clear when people rely on intuition and when they do not, or how one’s sixth sense can be educated.

On the whole, this is a highly entertaining, exceedingly well-written book, which, to the novice, represents a powerful introduction into the scientific study of intuition, and to the scientist serves as inspiration to see connections between seemingly disparate phenomena that are kept neatly apart in the daily business of cognitive science. Readers beware: This is a fast read, and you are sure to be disappointed when, at the end of the book, the tour de force through the universe of human hunches comes to a sudden stop.

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© Markus Kemmelmeier.

* Markus Kemmelmeier, Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program in Social Psychology, University of Nevada, Mail Stop 300, Reno, Nevada 89557, USA.


Kemmelmeier, M. (2002). The vicissitudes of gut feelings. Human Nature Review. 2: 525-527.

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