Monday, February 16, 2009

Gut feelings may actually reflect reliable memories

We've had a bit of discussion of "gut feelings" recently. See here, here.

I've thought for a long time that one explanation of "intuition" and "gut feelings" when applied to dealing with a particular issue or problem is that we have dealt with a similar issue or problem before, but we do not have a clear memory of having done so. Or else we have read or otherwise learned some information related to the issue or problem. But when confronted with the issue or problem again, we "intuitively" sense how to deal with it, even though we aren't conscious of remembering the previous experience or information.

Actually, this happens a lot with experts in many areas, such as law, medicine, or business. For example, a young physician examining a patient with a certain set of symptoms may recall having learned in school that the symptoms might indicate any of several different problems. And that to distinguish among the possible causes of the symptoms it is necessary to carefully examine the particulars of the situation.

An older, more experienced physician, on the other hand, may quickly settle on one specific diagnosis without consciously going over the detailed checklist of distinguishing indicators. In this latter case, the "intuition" may simply be unconscious recollection of past experience where some specific feature in the symptoms correctly tipped the balance between one diagnosis or another.

This is not an original observation (though I can't quite recall where I first saw it), but there is new research that does support it:

Gut Feelings May Actually Reflect Reliable Memories (2/8/09)
You know the feeling. You make a decision you're certain is merely a "lucky guess."

A new study from Northwestern University offers precise electrophysiological evidence that such decisions may sometimes not be guesswork after all.

The research utilizes the latest brain-reading technology to point to the surprising accuracy of memories that can't be consciously accessed.

During a special recognition test, guesses turned out to be as accurate or more accurate than when study participants thought they consciously remembered.

"We may actually know more than we think we know in everyday situations, too," said Ken Paller, professor of psychology at Northwestern.

Actually, this is so well known that psychologists have names for it: "implicit memory" or "recognition memory". It's closely related to another effect called "priming".

So when we are, sometimes, urged to go with our intuition or "gut feelings" in making a decision, it's not necessarily bad advice. We may in fact be making well-informed decisions even when we think we are using our "intuition". But the problem is that our memory, whether explicit or implicity, can be unreliable or downright wrong. So "intuition" can just as easily get us into trouble.

In particular, we may be remembering "information" that is simply untrue. As Satchel Paige is reported to have said, "It's not what you don't know that hurts you. It's what you know that just ain't so."

When faced with important decisions, and enough time to consider them, perhaps it's not a bad idea to go consult reliable sources of information, just to be sure...

The blog Neurophilosophy has a good discussion of this research and implicit memory:

The neurological basis of intuition (2/9/09)
Most of us have experienced the vague feeling of knowing something without having any memory of learning it. This phenomenon is commonly known as a "gut feeling" or "intuition"; more accurately though, it is described as implicit or unconscious recognition memory, to reflect the fact that it arises from information that was not attended to, but which is processed, and can subsequently be retrieved, without ever entering into conscious awareness.


Further reading:

Study Suggests Why Gut Instincts Work (2/8/09) – Livescience.com

Hidden memories guide choices (2/9/09) – Nature.com

Subliminal messages really do affect your decisions (2/14/09) – NewScientist.com

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2 Comments:

Anonymous KAS said...

Great post, thanks.

2/22/2009 07:24:00 PM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

Thank you, Kelly.

2/23/2009 01:28:00 AM  

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