Understanding Intuition and How the Mind Works: The invisible gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us

Blog Post 5Steve Jobs, in his famous Stanford University Commencement Address (2005), advised students not to let the “noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice”, but rather “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition”. Few psychologists would deny that we possess a subtle mind that can be a great source of strength, joy, and creative insight. However, as psychological scientists, our task is to understand how the subtle, ‘intuitive’ mind works and thus avoid any simple-minded, romantic proclamations.

Perhaps by seeking to understand how our intuitions can deceive us we can learn to master our subtle, intuitive mind and cultivate greater strength, joy, and creative and reflective capacities.  In their fascinating book, The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways That Our Intuition Deceives Us, Christoper Chabris and Daniel Simons provide readers with unique insights into the illusions of the mind and how to master them.  The book is wonderfully skeptical and scientifically well-informed, but also colored by anecdotes and wit in relation to the subtle ways in which our intuitive mind can deceive us.

Notably, it has become fashionable to argue that intuitive methods of thinking and deciding are superior to analytical methods. This is a seductive argument, given that intuition is often assumed to be faster and easier than rational deliberation.  Early humanistic accounts of human development also promoted the idea that intuition plays a central role in positive mental health.  According to Rogers, to become a fully functioning person required developing the ability to trust your instincts and cultivate intuitive, spontaneous modes of self-expression. Likewise, Jung characterized optimal mental health as including the ability to maintain an  “openness to messages from a deeper level of the unconscious” (Compton, 2005). But there are dangers in following intuitions based on the idea that they simply “feel right” – especially if we follow intuitions in the absence of understanding how the mind works.

The inspiration for The Invisible Gorilla came from one simple experiment carried out by its authors, involving a gorilla beating its chest on a basketball court. The authors asked participants to watch a video in which a group of basketball players dressed either in white or black passed a couple of basketballs around. Participants were asked to count the number of times the players in white passed the ball. During the video, a person dressed in a black gorilla suit walked into the middle of the group of players and beat their chest. Afterwards, students were asked if they had seen anything unusual (e.g. a gorilla). Amazingly, half of the participants did not report seeing a gorilla. The study quickly became one of the most famous experiments in psychology. This “Invisible Gorilla” concept, from which the title of the book originates, can be applied to many situations, including case studies where people ‘looking’ directly at a violent crime being carried out later report not ‘seeing’ it, and cases of unseen signs and symptoms by expert medical staff engaging in an ‘intuitive’ medical diagnosis. But further still, the Invisible Gorilla study sparked an inquiry into the many other ways that our intuition can deceive us. Chabris and Simons describe six everyday illusions that are critical in this context: the illusions of attention, memory, confidence, knowledge, cause, and potential.

Consider the illusion of confidence: in court room deliberations, a jury can easily fall victim to confusing a speaker’s confidence with his or her credibility, with more confident speakers deemed more credible. This, naturally, has consequences for the way jurors give weight to the evidence provided by different witnesses. However, if we can learn to cultivate and appreciate modesty and uncertainty, much like Socrates extolled, we may learn how to listen more carefully and wisely without falling victim to the illusion of confidence. It appears to make “intuitive” sense that you should trust your doctor more if they appear more confident when they are giving you medical advice.  We might intuitively lose confidence in doctors who have to consult with a reference book before advising us.  However, research has shown that confidence is not a good indicator of ability (e.g. Kruger & Dunning, 1999). Chabris and Simons suggest that it is reasonable for us to embrace tentativeness and modesty as noble characteristics, or strengths of character, much like positive psychology now recommends, and thus welcome back the uncertain phrase, “I’m not sure”.

Similarly, by becoming aware of the illusion of attention — the mistaken belief that we pay attention to more than is actually possible — we may avoid foolish, dangerous behavior such as “multitasking” whilst driving. The problem with the illusion of attention is that it feels like we’re paying enough attention, for example, when we are driving and simultaneously texting on the phone. However, when our attention is divided between two tasks, research finds that our performance on both tasks is poorer when compared to the situation where our attention is focused on one task alone. The problem is that we often don’t notice this performance deficit until the unexpected occurs and it is too late. As such, good judgment, grounded in knowledge of how the mind works, needs to replace our intuitive feeling that we are doing the right thing, making the right decision, in control of the situation, etc.

Other illusions, such as the mistaken belief that people have reservoirs of untapped mental ability that is just waiting to be effortlessly accessed, reinforces laziness and our tendency to select the many quick-and-easy fixes culture peddles our way. For example, the idea that listening to Mozart will make you or your child smarter, or that subliminal messaging can help you quit smoking, may sound appealing until you discover that there is no evidence that these things work. The problem is not the absence of potential, but the illusion that it is easy to unlock this potential. How many of us have been fooled into thinking that cognitive training products, such as Sudoku, can help overcome the general negative effects of aging on memory “with just a few minutes of training every day”? Who would even think of questioning such an idea — after all, surely there is some truth in the old adage “use it or lose it”, right? Chabris and Simons explain, however, that while you may get better at Sudoku, if you believe that Sudoku brain training will help you remember where you have put your keys or keep your mind sharper in general, then you are succumbing to the illusion of potential.  The problem is that the effects of Sudoku practice may not generalize to other cognitive skills, each of which may need to be cultivated in slightly different ways, but it feels like Sudoku training is a better form of brain training than something which may actually help our brains much more, but which may be harder work, such as regular aerobic exercise (see Kramer et al., 1999).

While the many illusions of intuition may have serious consequences at times, some of the consequences are humorous and this humorous appreciation of our foibles may even help us to transcend the illusions. Chabris and Simons tell the story of the “pope tart”, the comical situation where our overzealous pattern recognition leads us to see popes etched into pop tarts (Stollznow, 2000). Furthermore, the Simpsons are said to provide us with lessons on the illusion of causality: despite Lisa’s best efforts, Homer falls prone to believing that a rock has the ability to keep both tigers and bears away. Although we may laugh out loud while reading these stories, Chabris and Simons are quick to remind us that we ourselves may fall prone to similar illusions.

Chabris and Simons suggest that it is not the complete absence of intuitive decision-making that ensures higher levels of adaptive functioning. Rather, they suggest that “the key to successful decision making, is knowing when to trust your intuition and when to be wary of it and do the hard work of thinking things through” (p.235). Chabris and Simons ask us to slow down, relax, and examine our assumptions before jumping to conclusions, thus exercising modesty, prudence, self-regulation and perspective. They ask us to use our new understanding of how the mind works to understand why people act the way that they do, that is, often not because of stupidity, arrogance, or lack of focus, but because of the everyday illusions that affect us all. As such, they call upon us to exercise open-mindedness, kindness, forgiveness, and social intelligence. It is all too easy to harshly judge others, but when we truly respond to the call of Socrates to “know thyself” and when we truly come to understand our subtle, intuitive mind, we become more compassionate and understanding of others.

Interestingly, the jam study carried out by Wilson and Schooler (1991) represents one of the few attempts in the book to actually determine the type of situations in which “intuition” might actually be superior to deliberate analysis. While rational analysis may be absolutely necessary in some situations — hiring an employee based on his previous experience, rather than on a deceptive show of self “confidence” — when deciding between the taste of two jams or two lovers we might question how far rational analysis can be applied. Until determined otherwise by the “fully functioning person”, these may well be considered to be “matters of the heart” (to the extent that no single right answer can be determined using logic or the facts of science). Nonetheless, with its focus on the limitation of intuition, this book does inspire further inquiry into the other side of the debate and suggests the need for greater understanding of the situations in which intuition (or perhaps heuristics) may prove to be superior to rationality (cf. Gigerenzer, 2010).

Nevertheless, this wonderful book by Chabris and Simons helps us to move beyond mystical, emotional attachments to the ideal of intuition.  The book opens intuition to scientific enquiry in a most entertaining and engaging way.  And although Steve Jobs advised that we need to have courage to trust our intuition, this book teaches us that we also need to have the courage to slow down, relax and examine our assumptions. Then, and only then, do we give ourselves a real chance of spotting the “invisible gorillas” in our midst – something which might well require the development of new strengths of character.

Originally published Sep 14, 2012 in ‘In One Lifespan’ @ PsychologyToday

Some links contained within this post are external


Chabris, C. & Simon, D. (2010) The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives us. London, HarperCollins.

Compton, W.C. (2005). An Introduction to Positive Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning

Jobs, S. (2005). Stanford University Commencement Address. Stanford report. Retrieved from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

Kramer, A.F., Hahn, S., Cohen, N.J., Banich, M.T., McAuley, E., Harrison, C. R., Chason, J., Vakil, E., Bardell, L., Boileau, R.A. & Colcombe, A. (1999) Ageing, fitness and neurocognitive function. Nature, 400, 418-419. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v400/n6743/abs/400418a0.html

Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.

Stollznow, K. (2000). Merchandising God: The pope tart. The Skeptic, 28-34.

Wilson, T.D & Schooler, J. W. (1991). Thinking too much: Introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 181-192

One thought on “Understanding Intuition and How the Mind Works: The invisible gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s