Influences and Perceptions: How our intuitions deceive us

Why is it that I believe certain truisms? Did I learn them as a child or was I taught by the television ad?
We are much more likely to believe an anecdote or story than we are to believe the scientific evidence. Mothers that believe they know the cause of a child’s illness are unlikely to be swayed by hundreds of scientific studies that say otherwise. If a friend tells you they tried a new herbal remedy or other alternative medicine and it cured their migraine, you are likely to make the connection that the cause is the new alternative medicine. An example of this phenomenon is found with many sufferers of migraines using acupuncture who swear to its effectiveness in spite of evidence to the contrary.
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How our mind functions and the assumptions we make often are connected to our perceptions. The condition of “perceptual blindness” was aptly demonstrated by researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons at Harvard University. Their experiment involved a group of students wearing white shirts passing a basketball among the group members. The reviewers of the group were asked to count the number of passes the basketball made between the players. In the middle of the exercise a person in a gorilla suit wanders through the center of the ballplayers. Most of the participant reviewers never see the gorilla. They are focused on the task of counting the passes of the basketball. Another way of expressing this is “looking without seeing”. This is a literal meaning saying that you can look right at an object and if you do not expect to see it, you will not see it. This is the reason that lifeguards at swimming pools must change stations often because they become blind to seeing the body floating in the bottom of the pool. In military training operations, the team can become so focused on the object, such as a bomb, that they lose sight of the other dangers present.

The premise of how our intuitions deceive us is not limited to physical objects. Our brain is conditioned to expect certain responses. We either do not catalog the “out of the ordinary” response our brain is conditioned to expect or it leads to overconfident decisions. A good example of this phenomenon is what happens to the automobile driver who never sees the motorcycle rider. After the accident, the driver usually says “I was looking right there and they came out of nowhere. I never saw them.” The driver of the car is looking for another car, not a motorcycle. This is so frequent that it has led to the redesign of the motorcycle to look more like a car with two headlights, a bigger body, and wider frame.

Another group of social psychologists coined the term flashbulb memory to explain what happens to people when asked to describe what happened in a singular important event. Where were you on September 11, 2001 when our country was attacked? We all have our individual memories, but over time, our mind has embellished those memories to make them stand out. If someone was standing next to you when it happened, their recounting of the event is probably different from yours. And if you answered a questionnaire ten years after the event, your memory would not remember the very same story.

In recent years, psychologists have categorized our thought process into two types: those that are fast and automatic and those that are slow and reflective. The fast and automatic involves perceptions, memory, and causal interference. The fast and automatic decisions are usually low level brain actions and the slow and reflective include tasks which require abstract reasoning. A fast and automatic decision is stopping for a red light. It does not require conscious thought. If I asked you to add 87 + 64, you would have to stop and think about it. This type of thinking allows for correction if we are not on the right track. Intuition influences our decisions automatically and without reflection. It allows us to jump to conclusions and make untrue assumptions. This can cause us trouble and affect our health, wealth, and welfare if we follow blindly. Try your best to slow down, relax, and examine your assumptions before you jump to conclusions based on intuition. When you think about your behaviors with an awareness of everyday illusions, you will have an insight into how the mind works. And it may even lead to understanding why people act the way they do!