Why our intuitions are often wrong

U. ILLINOIS (US)—We may think we’re a good judge of character, observant, and perceptive, but research by two psychologist suggests we’re almost certainly not as good at those skills as we think we are.

In their new book, The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, Dan Simons, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, and colleague Christopher Chablis of Union College, discuss visual cognition, which explores the brain mechanisms that govern visual attention. The researcher want to learn more about how what we see (or don’t see) influences our perceptions of ourselves and of the world.

The book tackles “six everyday illusions that profoundly influence our lives,” the authors write: “the illusions of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential.”

“The focus of our book is on the ways in which our intuitions about the mind are fundamentally wrong a lot of the time,” Simons says. “We tend to think our intuitions are fantastic, and they’re terrible. And that has consequences.”

The researchers argue that cognitive abilities aren’t nearly as reliable as we think they are, and that disconnect can have negative consequences when it comes to not only life decisions, but perceptions about controversial topics in popular culture.

The research began as a “simple psychology experiment” illustrated in a video called “Gorillas in our Midst.” The video is an example of “inattentional blindness,” the failure to see something obvious because one’s cognitive resources are devoted to something else.

Simons and Chablis maintain that people do in fact miss much of what goes on in the visual world while at the same time overestimating their cognitive abilities.

The book uses both scientific results and anecdotal evidence to show that our intuitions about the world are often based on cognitive abilities such as memory and attention that are limited by the capacities of our brains and visual systems.

The authors’ perspective is one that goes against the trend of self-help and other popular psychology books that often advise readers to trust their intuitions and that the brain has great untapped potential.

Simons and Chablis use scientific studies going back more than a decade showing that people in numerous situations, including everyday ones such as financial decisions, often make the wrong choices based on intuition and cognitive abilities that are much less reliable than they believe.

Overestimation of one’s cognitive abilities, such as an illusion of attention prowess, can even be dangerous, Simon says.

“So it’s kind of a self-delusion, but without knowing that you’re doing anything to delude yourself,” he says. “Such delusions can lead people to do dangerous things with a false sense of security, such as talk or text on a cell phone while driving.”

More news from the University of Illinois:

Related Articles